In 'Pumpgirl,' Northern Irish Still Troubled

Solas Nua's "Pumpgirl" stars, from left, Madeleine Carr, Dan Brick and Stephanie Roswell in a work by Irish playwright Abbie Spallen.
Solas Nua's "Pumpgirl" stars, from left, Madeleine Carr, Dan Brick and Stephanie Roswell in a work by Irish playwright Abbie Spallen. (By Linda Murray -- Solas Nua)
By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 27, 2009

During the decades of sectarian violence known as the Troubles, the Northern Irish border town of Newry in County Armagh was a Nationalist enclave and the site of frequent bloodshed. Peace has now come to the region, but not necessarily to all its inhabitants. Not, for example, to the trio of disaffected dreamers we meet in the Irish play "Pumpgirl," which had its Washington premiere Thursday night.

"There's an inability within these characters to be happy, to find a normal life," says director Linda Murray, whose troupe, Solas Nua, is presenting the 2006 play by Abbie Spallen at Flashpoint's Mead Theatre Lab.

"They're seeking unhappiness without any sense of why they're doing it, almost like posttraumatic stress disorder is kicking in. That permeates an awful lot of new writing from the North," Murray says, in contrast to recent drama from the Republic of Ireland, which tends to dwell on the repercussions of the 21st-century economic boom that the country enjoyed until the global fiscal crisis hit.

The restlessness of the "Pumpgirl" characters, not to mention the play's very premise, is the stuff of Bruce Springsteen songs: A guy with a dead-end job and an unhappy marriage lives only to race cars and has a little something on the side with the titular, tomboyish gas-station attendant who keeps his hot rod humming. Heartache ensues.

Murray says Spallen's "raw, visceral language" attracted her more than the story, which is typical of the material that catches her, um, ear. "Abbie has a great sense of the idiomatic speech patterns that Irish people use, particularly in Newry," says Murray, a Dubliner who has spent the past six years hopscotching between Washington and home. "She also uses language in a very theatrical way, which is something else that I look for. It couldn't easily translate to another form."

As with many productions by Solas Nua -- a Washington-based contemporary-Irish arts organization that Murray, a 32-year-old linguist, actress and dancer, co-founded four years ago -- "Pumpgirl" marks the local debut of a young playwright on the rise. Other writers whose work Solas has premiered in Washington, such as Mark O'Rowe ("Made in China") and Enda Walsh (whose "Disco Pigs" was the company's maiden production in 2005), have since had their works produced by larger theaters here and in New York.

Spallen's play, Murray says, is part of a vanguard of post-conflict dramas written by female writers emerging from the North. "There are very few big female voices in Irish theater, with the exception of maybe Marina Carr," Murray points out, citing Lisa McGee's 2006 "Girls and Dolls" as another example of a welcome trend. (Solas will present a free reading of McGee's play next month.)

"Pumpgirl" is only Solas Nua's second full production by a Northern playwright. The first one, a triumphant 2007 staging of Owen McCafferty's "Scenes From the Big Picture," was outwardly as different from "Pumpgirl" as could be -- a sprawling epic with multiple storylines colliding.

But Spallen's intimate play unspools in the monologue format so beloved of Irish dramatists. "Irish people are long-winded," Murray says with a laugh. "The monologue reflects the way we speak, but it's also a really good storytelling tool."

Pumpgirl Flashpoint's Mead Theatre Lab 916 G St. NW. 800-494-8497; Through March 22. $20.

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