Also see Tim's review of Hairspray
Playwright Marie Jones made her reputation with Stones In His Pockets, which was a delightful diversion on Broadway in 2001. That play was a lighthearted comedy with some somber, tragic elements. Her latest work, Rock Doves, is quite the reversea tragedy with a few humorous moments. Director Mimi Kenney Smith's production for the Amaryllis Theatre Company is very effective in portraying the claustrophobic terror of modern Northern Ireland, and the performances are excellent. Yet the play doesn't quite live up to the virtuosic potential that Jones' earlier success seemed to promise.
Rock Doves is set in present-day Belfast, but it's a Belfast where the familiar stories of the Irish "Troubles" have taken an unexpected turn. As director Smith explains in a program note, the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998 forced Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups to disarm, but the leaders of those groups have been reluctant to give up power. Instead of fighting against their "former" enemies, these armies have now turned to controlling drugs, prostitution and other sordid activities within their own communities. As the play opens, we are introduced to an anxious teenager who claims to be a commander in one of the Protestant organizationsbut if he really is who he claims to be, why is he hiding out in a decrepit flat? The apartment belongs to Knacker, an elderly gent who has been worn down by hard times and cheap booze. Knacker refers to his bottle of whiskey as his "wife" and rants about the "Ironside" reruns he watches on TV; the fact that the TV doesn't actually work doesn't seem to bother him. "You're lucky you're a mad bastardthat's your only protection, being bonkers," says Bella, an ex-prostitute who watches out for him. Bella brings along Lillian, a transvestite who makes his/her living impersonating Tina Turner in Unionist nightclubs.
But what's Lillian's connection to the rest of this odd foursome? It takes a while to figure that out. In fact, you might be plenty confused when the 90-minute play reaches its intermissionand not just because of the "t'ick" Irish brogues. In act two, the gaps in Jones' story are filled innot just Lillian's connection to Bella, but also the real reason the boy is in hiding. The plot twists, however, are frustratingly mechanical, and there's a coincidence involving the boy's family that's too convenient to be believable. The ending is too bleak, and not just because of the violent setting; the characters long to escape to London or Liverpool, but they either never make it there or find themselves pulled back to Belfast. Knacker identifies with the restless pigeons (or "rock doves," as they're also known) that flock outside his window, but Bella doesn't; "You belong where you decide you want to belong," she says. If that's true, it's hard to find much sympathy for this quartet.
Still, there are plenty of pleasures to be found in Rock Doves, chiefly in Jones' colorful dialogue and the sincere performances that capture the wistful hearts of the characters. Michael Toner is the standout as Knacker, taking a stock character (the talkative Irish drunk) and giving him unexpected depth. Christopher Imbrosciano gets his moments to shine as the boy, particularly in an impressive act two monologue. Susan Giddings gives nice layers of sympathy to Bella, and Christopher Bohan makes Lillian surprisingly tough. And Dirk Durossette's realistically dilapidated set design is one of the show's delights.
Rock Doves veers between powerful flashes of insight and mundane moments that could come from a crime drama set anywhere in the world. It's fascinating, but it rarely reaches the moments of transcendent beauty that Marie Jones has shown herself capable of.
Rock Doves runs through December 7, 2008 at The Playground at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices are $20 (with discounts available for seniors and students) and are available by calling 215-564-2431 or online at www.amaryllistheatre.org.