Let me say right at the start that Bold Girls is a play about members of a tight-knit ethnic group facing terrible challenges, and getting by on sheer pluck and determination.
Wait, come back!
Rona Munro's script sneaks up on us, developing a towering stature by the close of events, thanks in no small part to the Orange Girls' production. Under Eric Little's direction, we discover a deeply intimate relationship between actors and audience. And it doesn't hurt that he has four splendid performers to help him carry out the task.
The cast, led by Amy Brixey, becomes endearing as it laughs off the cruelty of British-occupied Northern Ireland in the early 1990s. Their husbands and fathers are all in prison or dead, guilty or no, and the women themselves are beaten and harassed for their stiff-necked resistance. But as you'd expect, meager dreams and illusions still manage to creep up like weeds through the pavement.
Marie (Brixey) is seemingly the least "bold" of all of them: a mother of two; a widow, taking in laundry to keep turning out sandwiches for the women around her and bread crumbs for the local birds. Meghan Maguire plays her childhood friend Cassie, fierce toward life and waiting for that one last hot man to come by on a Saturday night. Both women start the evening full of everyday distractions, till events wear them down to a sharp edge.
During the big confrontation scene at the end, Ms. Brixey seems to count rosary beads in her twitching fingers, almost out of sight. Long before that, Ms. Maguire chokes on her words when it seems a face-off might be coming too soon. And later, she allows a shivering cry at Cassie's being trapped in Belfast. She presents each of these gem-like moments with the ease of a great sleight-of-hand artist.
All four women have brutally hard edges, chewing away at their last hidden tender spots. In fact, near the end, it looks like it has all been an exercise to destroy the last soft heart. But even then, Bold Girls still has a few surprises up its sleeve.
Donna Weinsting, who has played stoic Russian and French and Jewish matrons in recent years, is somehow more captivating than ever in her Irish red hair this particular autumn. Colleen Backer is outstanding as a thieving waitress, maddened by the Troubles, a girl who may or may not be the ghost of all their disappointed youths.
Though all four women speak in an intense Northern Irish dialect, it remains a remarkably unaffected effort overall (and the mental effort we exert to decode their lingo actually draws us into the play in a way most scripts cannot).
It's a bit like Mother Courage with the battle dragging on just outside a damp Irish flat. And of course, there are four of them here, tempered by hotter fires each day. They also manage to temper one another throughout, for no better reason than survival. It's strangely exhilarating.
Part of the St. Louis Political Theatre Festival, Bold Girls continues through October 22, 2006 at the new black box theater at the Center of Contemporary Arts (COCA). (314) 520-0557 or www.orangegirls.org.