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White Woman Street

Review by Tulis McCall
(22 May 2010)

From the minute this play began I knew we were in trouble. That's not quite true. I THOUGHT we were in trouble, but I wasn't positive until about five minutes in.

Stephen Payne is a rugged looking guy who could sure pass for someone who has spent one too many nights in the saddle on a windy plain. He has a voice like Sam Elliot - also one of those craggy faced guys - that sounds like his vocal chords have been tarred. Men with this sort of voice all seem to speak without moving their lips, as if whatever happened to their vocal chords were contagious and they didn't want you to catch it.

This is an iconic voice that we associate with the mythic West. And this is a story about men old enough to have lived through that time period and survived it. So all that works just fine. What doesn't work just fine is that the character that Payne plays, Trooper, is Irish. Yeah, he left when he was a teenager, which makes it 40 years ago, but there are certain things that your mother tongue gives you, and one of them is a rhythm of speech. Even the most gravel voiced man in Ireland has that music. Payne doesn't. Because of this little detail, the rest of the play is handicapped.

And the detail goes deep. The text of this play is all exposition. It is story telling, not action. Not my favorite kind of play, but it was effective in Our Lady of Parnell Street up at 59E59 Theatres last season. If you are going to make the story the action, then you better be a pretty good storyteller. Sebastian Barry is a particular sort storyteller - and you may or may not like how he goes about it. But ones thing he depends on, and that is actors who can handle his language. Payne may be swell when he is speaking American - but here his work achieves the result of throwing a wet wool sweater over a lilac bush in spring and wondering why you can't smell the flowers. The story is about a man who must return to White Woman Street - a place he visited 30 years ago where men flocked to bed down with the only white woman for 500 miles around. At this stage of his life Trooper is a restless man in the company of four others who have no home other than the one they created in the saddle. As an inducement for them to come with him, Trooper tells them of a train filled with gold that they can rob. Everyone signs on, but it is Trooper who must face the ghosts of White Woman Street. Once that is done he can lead his men to the train.

As I said - this is pretty much all exposition. It is an interesting story on the page where the language comes through clearly. Even then however, it is thin material. Barry is addressing a subject he doesn't know well and laying Irish touches over the whole thing. The result is a sort of tinted wash with no substance. It is difficult to say how this script was pulled out of the pile and deemed worthy of a production to begin with.

The pieces of the pie just don't fit well together with White Woman Street, and that's too bad. From start to finish it is a disappointing evening.

And - on a personal note - when will we see a piece at The Irish Rep that is staged to include everyone in the audience, not just the larger of the two seating areas? The only time the smaller section of audience was included for this production was during the curtain call - and by then it was too, too late.

(Tulis McCall)

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