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The Scavenger's Daughter

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 25, 2010

Scavenger's daughter is the name of an instrument of torture, devised by the British in the 16th century; it is essentially the opposite of the rack, pushing its victim into a compressed position such that the knees meet the head until the body literally falls apart. Writer-performer Colm Magner explains this in the middle of his solo play The Scavenger's Daughter, which is about how one man—the twin brother of the character portrayed by Magner—falls apart due to a lifetime of mental illness and drug abuse.

The play celebrates more than eulogizes the dead brother, Finnegan; and though Finnegan's suicide is certainly the inciting incident of the piece, the protagonist is clearly Magner's unnamed character, a man who comes to learn much about his past, present, and future during an introspective car trip as he brings his brother's ashes to the funeral service.

The play is dark and irreverent, but never sorrowful or melancholic. Magner takes us through stories of adolescent pranks, intimidation by nuns and the local priest (who brought a portable confessional to be set up in the gymnasium of the boys' Catholic school once a week), and a good deal of acid-dropping and late-night drinking. I didn't personally find much to relate to in these characters and their histories, nor did I finally take away much of a message other than the clear one of re-evaluating your life in a moment of unexpected cataclysm. But Magner is a sharp, vivid storyteller, creating personas for his own character at many different ages as well as several other individuals, including the stern German priest Father Reinhardt and a pair of likable everyman Irish boozers in a pub.

The Scavenger's Daughter is directed by Jim Gaylord on a stage that's bare except for a pair of draperies and three small tables that Magner manipulates to form a variety of set pieces, from the bar in a pub to Father Reinhardt's portable confessional to the eponymous torture device of antiquity. There are some very minimal projections now and again (designed by Chris Kalb), but I found that they mostly distracted from Magner's strong stage presence. Excellent, evocative lighting is by Deborah Constantine.

The Scavenger's Daughter is not a play for everybody: its characters and situations are rough and gritty, and there's a lot of drug-related content that might make the piece inappropriate for certain kinds of audiences. And some of the references to Catholic school, the church, and the Irish family unit may resonate more strongly with people who share that religion and heritage.

Magner has relocated to New York City after a long career in Canada; it will be interesting to see what he does next.