nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 5, 2005
Marion Bridge should be—if the there's any justice in TheatreLand—the play that makes stars out of Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor and rising actress Susan Louise O'Connor. Beautifully directed by Susan Fenichell and splendidly mounted by Urban Stages, it's a terrifically entertaining and engaging work. I highly recommend it.
It's about three sisters who have reunited at their family home, after a long time apart, to care for their dying mother. The eldest, Agnes, is a struggling actress who lives in Toronto and is unhappy to have to return to her roots here on remote Cape Breton Island. Theresa, the middle sister, is a Catholic nun in a farming order; a natural peacemaker, she's determined to see the clan through this crisis. The youngest sister is Louise; she still lives at home, though without a job (at least lately): she is, as her sisters forthrightly put it, "strange."
As their time together passes, all manner of family secrets and recriminations emerge (or re-emerge). Agnes is angry at her mother because when she was a teenager, she became pregnant and was forced to give up her baby for adoption. Theresa is exasperated by Agnes's drinking and by her constant swearing. Louise has become, apparently, addicted to TV soap operas; she also has found religion, and her sisters are a little concerned about her close relationship with a "butch" (Agnes's term) member of her prayer group who drives a truck. All three deal with their conflicted feelings about their father, who abandoned the family long ago and now lives in a mansion with a sexy young woman whom Agnes and Theresa both call "Lolita." And there's a lot of lingering resentment about a family trip, decades ago, to a town called Marion Bridge. Agnes was disappointed because this place, a favorite of their mother's, proved so lackluster. Louise—though the other two have forgotten this—is still nursing a grudge because she wasn't allowed to go, on account of having the chicken pox.
More—much more—surfaces as the play progresses. MacIvor has created three vivid, strikingly contrasting women in this family, and in the hands of the very capable actresses Henny Russell (Agnes), Christa Scott-Reed (Theresa), and Susan Louise O'Connor (Louise), they become loving, appealing, hugely sympathetic presences. Russell nicely balances Agnes's hardened veneer (the sometime drunk who mourns all the lost opportunities of her life) with the warm, caring woman that she generally keeps hidden underneath—there's a gorgeous moment, for example, in which Agnes and the childlike Louise are playing cards, and Russell lets us see the precise instant when Agnes decides to let her baby sister win. Scott-Reed deftly navigates Theresa's transition from almost-annoying goody-two-shoes to a more complicated, accepting, growing woman trying to negotiate her dwindling faith and her conflicting desires. Good as both of these two are, O'Connor nevertheless threatens to steal the show out from under them, time and again, in the admittedly showier role of Louise. O'Connor brings massive warmth, naiveté, determination, and precocious wisdom to this character—one she was born to play, as fans of her work in previous MacIvor shows such as Never Swim Alone and See Bob Run will surely attest. O'Connor gets some of the play's choicest material in her direct-address monologue (all three sisters are assigned one), advising us to live life the way she likes to drive her truck—completely out in the open and in the moment, ready to embrace whatever she happens upon without thinking about what's behind or ahead of her.
The story of these three women is easy to enjoy and easy to get lost it; but MacIvor is no conventional storyteller, and as I watched Marion Bridge I became aware early on that for those theatregoers interested in digging beneath the surface of this homey drama, there's some buried treasure waiting to be discovered. What MacIvor does here—shrewdly, subtly—is to create a soap opera (a cannily engaging one) and at the same time, explore why such a story, for all its excess and strained plausibility, is so appealing and so necessary to us. Agnes says, exploding the mythology of her glamorous life in the theatre:
I'm just trying to make some kind of story. I've spent so long trying to tell other people's stories. Telling stories in dirty basements with people who think crazy means brilliant and brilliant means poor. Telling stories I don't even understand. I want my own story.
And Louise, disarmingly, states the playwright's purpose very directly at the end of her monologue, when she says to us:
I suppose some people would say it's strange for me to be standing here talking to you.
And I suppose some people'd say it's strange for you to be sitting there listening.
We have to listen; we can't help it. MacIvor knows this. And in this deceptively simple, brilliant play, he shows us why theatre—all stories, in fact—are so essential to our survival.