‘Molly’ at Scena Theatre

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Scena has gone green, and I’m not talking about reusable grocery bags. Concurrent with their production of Conor McPherson’s Shining City, Scena is mounting the world premiere of Molly, an original one-woman show written by author and academic George O’Brien. The show revolves around the titular Molly Allgood (Danielle Davy), an actress who worked at the legendary Abbey Theatre in Dublin at the turn of the 20th century. Her lover and erstwhile director, John Synge, a giant of modern Irish drama, has passed on to the great pub in the sky. Dressed in mourning and sporting an impressive Irish brogue, Ms. Davy expounds on her life, career, and relationship with the recently deceased.

Danielle Davy (Molly Allgood). Photo by Jae Yi Photography.
Danielle Davy (Molly Allgood). Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

In his director’s note, Robert McNamara (also the Artistic Director at Scena) writes that “[Molly] tells us in private mourning how she feels about practically everyone in her day.” Indeed, Molly Allgood does seem well acquainted with the who’s who of early 20th century Irish literature, from Lady Augusta Gregory to W.B. Yeats. The dense thicket of art history that makes up the substance of Molly is undoubtedly a treasure trove of information with respect to the “Irish Literary Renaissance.” For all its detail, however, Molly lacks a central conflict that seeks resolution. Because there is no real drama or character development written into the show, Molly is ultimately better suited as a creative academic lecture than a compelling piece of theatre.

As if to hammer home this point, the most prominent design feature of Molly is a projection screen that intermittently displays images of people and places that Molly is speaking about. This curious choice is reminiscent of a university lecture hall, and, although the images seem to assure us that the people Molly is discussing were in fact real, living souls, they contribute no additional insight into the lives of those people or the historical context that they lived in. This is a shame, because greater clarification of exactly who and what Molly is talking about would be greatly appreciated by those not intimately acquainted with the Abbey Theatre and associated early Modernist Irish theatre history.

Danielle Davy (Molly Allgood). Photo by Jae Yi Photography.
Danielle Davy (Molly Allgood). Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Beyond the central projection screen, the set, by ProScena Design and Elizabeth McFadden, is dull and rather confusing. Plain black panels flank a tiled floor on which rests, curiously, a park bench. So, is Molly speaking to the gravestone of her dear departed John? Is she inside his family estate at Glengarry? Is she at The Abbey Theatre, or some other location in Dublin? Like the set, the lighting design (by Daniel Schrader) adds neither clarification nor emotive substance to the show. However, Alisa Mandel provides a wonderful costume, which, with its Edwardian crimps and sumptuous black satin, is frequently the most interesting thing on stage.

Given the static nature of Mr. O’Brien’s script, actor Danielle Davy has her work cut out for her. Ms. Davy is able to infuse some moments with a vibrancy that brings the bohemian world of 1900’s Dublin to life. And the most compelling moments of the show are when Molly imitates the larger-than-life characters who surround her. When she shows us the world she is living in, rather than simply telling us, Molly strikes sparks on stage. However, Ms. Davy also makes ample use of the dramatic pause, significantly slowing the pace of a show that desperately needs to move quickly.

The bohemian world of John Synge, W.B. Yeats, and Molly Allgood was chocked full of literary innovation and a good dose of sexual controversy. It is undoubtedly an era worth studying, and its luminaries, like those at the contemporaneous Moscow Art Theatre, are saints in the canon of modern Western drama. Molly could do more to animate the stories of these theatrical pioneers. But, with its compendium of information, at least now I have had a primer.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Molly plays through September 21, 2014 at Scena Theatre, performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at (202) 399-7993, or by going online.