By Chuck Graham
There’s more than a bit of the madhouse in Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s “The New Electric Ballroom” now at the Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd.
There’s more than a bit of the madness metaphor, as well, among a choked family of three helpless sisters who keep talking about the past as a desperate attempt to keep themselves alive in the present – and to keep themselves distracted from admitting they don’t have any future.
Yes, there is an oppressive bleakness here. But there is also humor, and an emotional evening of intense performances by Cynthia Meier, Cynthia Jeffery, Laura Lippman and Joseph McGrath. This is meaningful theater, to be sure -- which isn’t anything like TV…and neither is “The New Electric Ballroom,” directed by Bryan Rafael Falcon.
Jeffery as Breda, the dominant sister, begins the play by giving a long speech with her back to the audience. When she finally turns around, there is a large scrawl of lipstick across her mouth. This is only the first of many indicators something is not quite right in this isolated little seacoast cottage.
Walsh has structured this “Ballroom” with very little direct dialogue. Each sister, by turn, makes a long speech about her troubled thoughts. These are occasionally interrupted by Patsy (McGrath), an equally daft fish monger who keeps coming to the door with a tray of three very nice looking fish.
Patsy is always roundly ignored by the three women. But after awhile it seems like Patsy might be interested in Ada (Lippman), youngest of the siblings. Only, all of Ada’s loyalties are already attached to her sisters. There is no room for Patsy in her cloistered life.
In between Breda and Ada chronologically is Clara (Meier), who seems sweet most of the time. Then just when you think she might be the hope of this desolate little group, Clara takes a rapid dive into profanity without any provocation.
The arc of “Ballroom” curves across the memories of Breda and Clara who, several decades earlier, were virginal teens attending a town dance, yearning for love and their fulfillment as grown women.
First Clara, then Breda, tell their stories with unhappy endings, hoping to warn Ada that any attempt at happiness will only lead to heartbreak. Ada becomes a willing audience, always encouraging her sisters to continue their stories once again.
Patsy becomes the X-factor, when he unexpectedly gets involved as a part of this sad charade. In a brilliant stroke of playwriting, Walsh has Patsy find the courage to speak his heart and his feelings for Ada while singing a rock ‘n’ roll song from the 1950s.
Any devoted reader of Rolling Stone magazine knows exactly what to expect. Only…this isn’t what Walsh has in mind.
“The New Electric Ballroom” is filled with the plain-spoken lyricism we would expect from the Irish tradition.
“My throat is jammed with butterflies,” says Clara, recalling that night at the dance. There are many such images that give the production its own internal liveliness.
The language of the play, coupled with the intensity of the performers, creates a heart-binding theater experience of poignant sympathies laced with Walsh’s own black sense of humor. For continuing to build the Rogue Theatre’s already-awesome reputation, “The New Electric Ballroom” is another fine and sturdy brick.
Performances continue through March 11 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, at the Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd. A 15-minute pre-show of music is offered before every performance. All tickets are $30. March 1 and March 8 all tickets are $15. For details and reservations, 551-2053, or visit www.theroguetheatre.org