Vanishing Point: A review of the New Electric Ballroom by Enda Walsh, part three of the Enda Walsh Festival at the Studio Theatre. Directed by Matt Torney, produced by Studio Theatre.
All credit to the Studio Theatre’s Artistic Director, David Muse, for staging an Enda Walsh Festival. Brilliant in conception and execution: the sequencing of the three plays, with the compelling absurdity of Penelope, the horrible pain of the Walworth Farce, and now the nervy, gripping drama of the New Electric Ballroom – is nothing short of brilliant. The Festival writ large could well be the finest theater event I have experienced in DC.
The New Electric Ballroom is a companion piece to the Walworth Farce, inverting the gender roles of the characters, with three sisters living alone in a fishing village in Ireland, their starkly isolated lives shatteringly cast into relief by an outsider. Like the other plays of the Festival, the Ballroom is an exploration how people create stories about themselves, about life – and how those stories become prisons – and how we seek companionship by using those stories to lure others in.
We first meet the two elder sisters, vain Breda (Sybil Lines) and daffy Clara (Nancy Robinette), living as shut-ins by choice, avoiding the gossipy talk of the neighbors and the ever-narrower, closed-in streets of their tiny town. They live with a third sister, younger by decades, Ada (Jennifer Mendenhall). Ada has a semblance of life outside their home, though, as it is described, she keeps to the path to the local cannery where she works as an accountant – “turning fish into numbers.” Their only social interaction is a misfit fishmonger, Patsy (Liam Craig), delivering fish daily and blathering gossip at the women until Breda chases him away.
The curtain raises – well, there’s no curtain, just a brightening light from the stylish chandelier in the center of the stunningly minimal but beautiful set (in stark contrast to the ratty council flat in the Walworth Farce), designed by Debra Booth – and we see Ada “directing” Breda, standing on a locker, face to the wall, as she reads a monologue about words. As with Walsh’s other plays, it will be a while before we understand the roles of the characters, and then watch as those roles shift imperceptibly or catastrophically. Clara acts almost as an invalid, and both sisters seem in thrall to Ada at first.
Director Matt Torney extracts perfect performances from his cast, each taking astonishing turns delivering their spotlighted monologues, with facial expressions and physical interactions that are at turns riveting and impossible to watch. The monologue sets out the stall, about how words have the ultimate power – and the importance of hiding from the words of those outside these four walls. The front door is looks like that of a fortress, and on the rare occasions when it opens, we see the sky and the sea beyond. The prison keeps the words out and the sisters in. Patsy bursts in – startlingly on a few occasions – but only Ada gazes out at the vista beyond.
The monologue gives way to the dumb-show, the play within a play – a re-enactment of a fateful evening decades earlier when the two older sisters collided with the outside world, each other, and their fates. The events of that evening were so painful, so traumatic, and so magnified by the gossipy tongues of the townies that they ultimately decided to shut the world out. They re-enact the story within the confines of their home, at first to entertain tiny Ada. Like any child, she cries, “again, again!” and the story grows in significance and baleful influence, eventually smothering Ada and steeling her against the outside world.
It becomes clear that Ada is not directing them, but imprisoned by them and their story – which the sisters use to continue a running battle of insults and slights, made comic and grotesque after all these years of retelling. Both older sisters are so damaged, they can only justify their lives by crushing Ada. It is the fishmonger Patsy, like Haley in Walworth, who observes the sisters as a stand-in for us. But, unlike Haley, Patsy’s crippling social anxiety and stink of fish make him an outcast that distances us. Indeed, he is as trapped as the other two – a sadder, more damaged Johnnypatteenmike, but with the chance of change.
Indeed, it is this chance of change – the chance for Ada to break out of her sisters’ grasp, the chance for Patsy to grow – that makes this 90 minute (no intermission) play gallop by. I was on the edge of my seat, and, I won’t spoil it, but as the astonishing events of the last 30 minutes come to pass, I felt myself on the edge of my seat, of tears, and of shouting with joy. This is why we have theater – to feel as I felt as those transformations occur in the final act of the play. The choices the play presents us are stark – to explore the world with no more of a map than love (to paraphrase one character), or to lock ourselves inside to avoid the harm that the world bestows upon us.
The pacing and sheer genius of the New Electric Ballroom’s exquisitely-written turning points, perfectly-directed, and immaculately acted have both established Mr. Walsh as my favorite playwright working today and earned my ecstatic thanks to Mr. Muse. The Studio has pulled off a brilliant coup-de-theatre.