Issuing a Passport to Theater's Irish Realm

"We want to give the most authentic representation of what's happening at home," says Solas Nua's founder and artistic director, Linda Murray (with producing director Dan Brick). (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By John H. Tucker
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 4, 2007

When playwright Enda Walsh created "Bedbound," in which an Irish salesman and his crippled daughter are confined to the same mattress, he apparently based the female character on the fractured identity of post-"Celtic Tiger" Ireland.

For 30-year-old actress Linda Murray, however, the role served as a metaphor for her life.

The play was staged last year by the Washington theater company Solas Nua, and Murray played the lame Colleen, who's physically bound to her Irish bed. Meanwhile, Murray, a Dublin native, found herself legally bound to return to Ireland.

Unable to reestablish U.S. residency after her visa expired in March, Murray -- Solas Nua's founder and artistic director -- was exiled to Dublin after the show's run.

Despite her immigration impasse, though, she has continued to oversee Solas Nua's operations from across the Pond. That includes guiding the company to the kickoff of its sophomore season last week at Flashpoint's Mead Theatre Lab, with the U.S. premiere of Walsh's "The Small Things." (Even the playwright -- recently appointed writer-in-residence at Dublin's immortal Abbey Theatre -- was scheduled to attend today's performance.)

Although other U.S. companies specialize in Irish drama -- New York's Irish Arts Center and Irish Repertory Theatre come to mind -- Solas Nua (Gaelic for "new light") is arguably the only such organization with a contemporary bent.

"If it's older than 15 years, we won't touch it," says Murray by phone from Dublin, where she lives with her parents to save money for her frequent transatlantic treks. "Other Irish American organizations put on plays written 100 years ago, but there have been huge social, economic and demographic changes in Ireland, and we create an artistic environment in which people can explore the transition."

Ireland's younger playwrights are even beginning to upstage their iconic predecessors of the early 20th century, says Abbey Director Fiach Mac Conghail. "Our traditional writers -- the Synges, the O'Caseys -- are amazing, but from the mid-'70s onward, there has been an explosion of new Irish writing, and we depend on it," he says.

In addition to "Small Things," which Murray produced but needs a traveler's visa to attend, the 2007 Solas Nua lineup features "Scenes From the Big Picture," directed by Belfast native Des Kennedy, of Bush Theatre stock. Its playwright, Owen McCafferty, plans to be present for the opening performance in May.

"We want to give the most authentic representation of what's happening at home," says Murray, noting that Solas Nua's charter mandates an artistic director who is native to the Emerald Isle. Murray even extends the company's true-to-life philosophy to regional dialects, drilling accents into actors previously trained to use a generic "they're after me Lucky Charms" brogue.

That authenticity is appreciated by members of Ireland's new school of playwrights, including Anne Le Marquand Hartigan, whose "La Corbière" was performed by Solas Nua in the Georgetown public swimming pool before 200 people a night during last summer's Capital Fringe Festival. "To see the play done in the water was just brilliant," she says. "It was the best production I've seen since it premiered at the Dublin Festival."

Area critics such as Ronnie Ruff, who runs, have also been dazzled by Murray's brainchild: "I have seen other [new] companies show promise over the last few years, but they haven't risen to the next level like Solas Nua."

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