Being fifty and single does not mean you are required to get a cat. Instead, it means you are given the right to dissect your past fifty years and rant about what finally needs to be changed (hint: it definitely has something to do with men—ok, a LOT to do with men). Marie Jones (of Stones in His Pockets fame) has given the audiences at the Irish Arts Center another character-blending play that shuffles witty comebacks with sobering realizations about life and love, all under the title of Women on the Verge of HRT (hormone replacement therapy, I learned from the usher).
This time, it’s not two Irish lads immersing themselves in the movie business, but two mature Irish women, Anna and Vera, who travel from Belfast to Donegal to see their singing idol Daniel O’Donnell in concert. Vera, having been left by her husband for a girl twenty-five years her junior, and Anna, suffering daily in the most repressed of all marriages, are more than ready to reclaim their lives when a magical room service waiter named Fergal knocks on their door. Fergal (who bears a striking resemblance to their beloved Daniel) invites them to join him on the shores of the Donegal sea as the dawn approaches, a night on which he promises “anything can happen.”
Even though the subject matter feels a bit tired (how many times can you ask if someone not exactly beautiful can still be loved for who they are?), Women on the Verge relies on its odd-couple pairing of Anna and Vera and the versatile acts of Fergal as all the people who have caused them stress in their past. It is quite a feat for two women—one with a picture of Daniel O’Donnell screened onto her pillow, the other resolutely sporting a black satin nightgown for the benefit of whoever might happen to wander by—to not appear desperate. However, director Lynne Taylor-Corbett (Tony-nominated for her direction of Broadway’s Swing), encourages her cast to embrace the feisty and fiery outbursts and innate longings that swell deep inside them.
Joan D. Slavin digs her heels into the part of Vera, bringing new meaning to the phrase “fifty and fabulous.” Her confidence and self-reliance do well to mask the buried yearning for love swathed in the determination to see her ex-husband miserable. As Anna, Kelly Taylor is a tense mountain of inhibition, desperate to keep things as they are instead of learning the truth of her husband’s feelings for her. The two women are well-matched, each inhabiting her character with an understanding that connects the audience to their pinings and fears.
Unlike the women, who fear being passed over when they enter a room, not noticing Tom Souhrada would be like not noticing a tornado racing about the stage. From Daniel O’Donnell to the women’s husbands to the local town biddy, Mr. Souhrada jumps between characters with a sharpness that is astounding. Each interpretation is distinctly constructed and fleshed out, and never once does he teeter on blurring his characters. Each time he ventures offstage or turns his back, the anticipation of who he will return as this time is virtually palpable.
The injection of musical numbers, however, is an awkward and uncomfortable decision. Although the actors do well with the songs, and accompanist Doug Oberhamer provides some appropriate mood music, these characters spend so much of their time building their defenses to the outside world that suddenly exploding into song feels not only intrusive, but confusing. The words being said in dialogue show much more insight into the characters than do the bland and immobile songs.
It is also slightly jarring that the first act is so based in reality - set in The Viking House Hotel owned by Daniel O’Donnell - yet the second act transcends into the magical moments between midnight and dawn when the banshee squeals and the fairies roam. By the show’s conclusion, however, the change proves itself necessary, for without the magical confrontations the women have with their men, they would be no better off than they were before visiting Donegal.
In the same vein as Stones in His Pockets, Women on the Verge of HRT gathers its charm from its talented cast, who transform character sketches into a revelation of life, love, and middle age. Far from being banished to the “sexual hospice,” Vera and Anna declare with pride that, like the banshee, their middle-aged female voices deserve to be heard.
Autumn Stages Theatre Company