White Woman Street
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
May 14, 2010
In White Woman Street, an aging cowboy battles the ghosts of his past, forced at last to confront memories of atrocities he committed against Native Americans 30 years before. Like the similarly-themed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the play exposes the dark underbelly of the American Dream, examining a chapter of history—the genocide of millions of Native Americans—often given short shrift in history books.
White Woman Street follows a band of outcasts-turned-bandits as they travel to the town of White Woman Street, so named because at one time its brothel reportedly housed the only white prostitute for miles. Trooper O'Hara, the bandits' leader, says they're going there to rob a government gold train, but he's really seeking peace with his past. 30 years ago, he scalped Indians for the government. As a young man, he fled Sligo for America, where unexpectedly found himself as much oppressor as oppressed.
No one in Trooper's band fully comprehends his secret, though each man has a hidden past of his own. The seemingly conceited Englishman Blakely fled a poor life in Grimsby, a time so dark and remote he can't even remember his first name. The upright Mo Mason, who views Trooper as his brother, escaped an oppressive upbringing in Amish Ohio, but he can't recall much from back then, other than saying goodbye to his brother Moses. Young Nathaniel Yeshov, who boasts of his Russian father and Chinese mother, left Brooklyn in search of adventure out West, but, he finds himself increasingly unable to remember his own history. James Miranda, the company's cook and lone African American, ran away from racial prejudice down South, a place of which he seldom speaks.
White Woman Street is by Sebastian Barry, whose monologue play, The Pride of Parnell Street, was a highlight of the First Irish Festival last fall. Barry is a poet and novelist as well as a playwright, and his plays cross genres. They use lush, poetic language and feature richly detailed, emotionally evocative monologues—characteristics much in evidence here.
The action unfolds almost surreptitiously, with character and plot often revealed in monologue. These monologues—practically mini-plays in themselves—offer subtle glimpses into souls the characters can barely remember they possess. Strangely, both James Miranda and Clark, the Native American barkeep at the town brothel, never get their own soul-searching monologues. Their characters remain mysteries.
Director Charlotte Moore paces the production well. The monologues flow naturally out of the dialogue, never feeling like set pieces. Each member of the ensemble brings his character to vivid life, particularly Stephen Payne as the haunted Trooper and Gordon Stanley as the gruff but compassionate Mo Mason. Hugh Landwehr's sparse set, dominated by distressed wooden planks and a painting of the moon looming stage right, makes economical use of the Irish Repertory space while suitably evoking the rugged Ohio backwoods of 1916. The only effect that doesn't succeed are the tall chairs used to represent the gang's horses—somehow, the image doesn't work, even with the sound effect of horses' whinnying in the background.
The disparate emotional strands of White Woman Street never come together with the searing force of Barry's other "street" play, The Pride of Parnell Street, but it a nevertheless poignant play well worth seeing.