THEATER REVIEW

Rosemary Jenkinson's 'Stella Morgan' is good, but not great, at Keegan Theatre

FAMILY WOES: Chris Aldrich's Thomas causes problems for Kerry Waters Lucas's Stella.
FAMILY WOES: Chris Aldrich's Thomas causes problems for Kerry Waters Lucas's Stella. (Jim Coates/keegan Theatre)

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By Nelson Pressley
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Here's an unintended consequence of Washington's unusually rich Irish theater scene -- the writers are beginning to blur together.

Take this scenario: two actors on a bare stage, each delivering a monologue, in alternating fashion. Their stories are lyrical and profane, and sometimes action-packed, for the streets/pubs/flats of Belfast/Dublin are nothing if not rough. The vivid phrasemaking is liquid gold on the actors' tongues and the literary craftsmanship is admirable, with details in the monologues overlapping at just the right moment to snap a bleak image indelibly into place.

This might be Enda Walsh or Mark O'Rowe or Abbie Spallen, but currently at the Church Street Theater, it's Rosemary Jenkinson and her play "Stella Morgan." The title character of this hour-long piece is a blowsy fortuneteller whose intense faith in her psychic ability sounds rational. (The Irish are persuasive when it comes to ghosts.) Her opposite number onstage is her son, Thomas, a young man inevitably (as young men in such plays are) caught up in a swirl of drug dealing and violence.

They are desperate peddlers of different stripes, with Thomas as the more familiar type. His tales are full of swagger and bodily fluids -- you really don't want to know where the drugs have been -- but Chris Aldrich isn't quite convincing in the role. This style of writing asks a lot of actors; it's wholly on them to conjure seedy locations and threatening foes (plus whatever drabs of conscience may come into play), and Aldrich doesn't make you believe that he has lived through what he's telling you.

Kerry Waters Lucas is convincing, though, as Stella, handling everything from lurching gestures as she describes a bad cab ride to the maternal bits as Stella worries about whether Thomas is sticking with the substance-abuse recovery program that he's signed up for. You feel Stella's deep fatigue, her embarrassment at not quite recalling a customer's name, the sheer sustenance represented by the bit of cash she picks up in a night. At their best, the monologues do give you the lonely and hopeful interiors of lives on the fly, and Lucas is fully at ease with the jagged edges and sentiment that come with this territory.

Eric Lucas's world-premiere production for the Keegan Theatre couldn't be more spare: The set is two chairs in front of a wrinkled white curtain, and though Dan Martin's lights shift moodily, little comes between the audience and the author's words.

Jenkinson seems destined to be this season's Irish find in Washington; Solas Nua produced her "Johnny Meister and the Stitch" last month, and the Keegan has scheduled the U.S. premiere of her "Basra Boy" for next June. "Stella Morgan" suggests that Jenkinson, who adroitly follows the fashionable dramaturgical template here, will hold the stage without breaking the mold.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Stella Morgan

by Rosemary Jenkinson. Directed by Eric Lucas. Set design, George Lucas. About one hour. Through Aug. 18 at the Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 703-892-0202 or visit http://www.keegantheatre.com.


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