Acting shines in slow-burning ‘Woman and Scarecrow’

Karen Baum and Nike Doukas in Marina Carr's Woman and Scarecrow at PICT Classic Theatre. Photo by Connor Mulvaney

Karen Baum and Nike Doukas in Marina Carr’s Woman and Scarecrow at PICT Classic Theatre. Photo by Connor Mulvaney

By Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PICT’s resident Irishman Alan Stanford plants a thick swath of peat for his theater company’s latest production, “Woman and Scarecrow,” by fellow Hibernian Marina Carr.

The play fans the smoky fuel of the island’s favorite subjects – motherhood and death – into a slow-burning drama (145 minutes) of intense passions that these subjects can invoke. “Woman and Scarecrow” first played in 2006 in the British Isles, a land that could appreciate the thorough Irishness of it, but it’s a quality that Pittsburgh audiences might find less interesting.

That possibility is not the production’s fault. Directed by Mr. Stanford, the two principals, Nike Doukas as Woman and Karen Baum as Scarecrow, are unflagging in roles that demand a high pitch of emotions that swings from terror to sardonic humor.

Ms. Doukas never leaves the stage. Woman is in the terminal stage of death, imprisoned on her bed in a plain white nightgown, yet she uses that bed as a wide stage of her own while she recollects and regrets the days of her life.

The diminutive Ms. Baum invests her indistinct character with a leprechaun-like playfulness that she suddenly shifts into moods of anger and domination. One way to describe Scarecrow is Woman’s id, the intellectual side of her character always judging, always chiding and always needy of attention.

Ms. Carr’s Irish woman is neither a victim of poverty, ignorance nor a symbol of political resistance familiar to Irish drama. She’s middle class, maybe enjoying her country’s recent economic boom before the 2008 crash. Although the mother of eight, she can go to Paris to visit the Louvre, take occasional lovers and use such arch phrases as “whinging panegyric.” Woman also has life insurance and a pension to leave her family.

She likely represents the place of women in contemporary Ireland – the dutiful bearer of many children but eager for freedom and learning outside the home. It’s a topic that loses its impact with American audiences, though.

Scarecrow savages Woman for failing to take that leap because the failure has left her unsatisfied and angry. She demands that Woman in a final act of rebellion write a note renouncing her philandering husband who ruined her life. It’s a scene that swings from humor as Woman lists her funeral demands to a devastating attack on Him, the cliched unfaithful mate who is given humanity and even a bit of sympathy by James FitzGerald.

(Is there a contemporary play with a faithful husband?)

Playwright Carr fills her play with lyrical language, fresh symbolism and understated humor that lightens the morbid subject of death. Yet, it’s a subject so thoroughly explored that she can’t add anything to the topic except to hide the grim reaper in a wardrobe that emits scary noises now and then.

In a literary homage, perhaps to “The Last Playboy of the Western World,” Ms. Carr’s character wants to die in “the west,” that wilder part of Ireland. “I want to drive west. I need expanse now, the open sea, the wolfish mountains. That’s what’s been missing,” Woman tells her husband.

The pacing of the play moves smoothly through act one, then sputters a bit in the second act slowed down by repetition and inconsistencies. There’s a needed spark from Sharon Brady as Woman’s Auntie Ah, who pulls out her rosary beads but bitterly leaves her niece hanging about key information from the past.

In the end, though, it’s the powerful performances of leads Doukas and Baum that are fascinating to watch and appreciate. Mr. Stanford has inspired fine acting from this pair, performances that lift the show above the play’s problems.

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