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When I Was A Girl I Used To Scream and Shout

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Although the Scottish seashore is the setting for Sharman Macdonald's When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout, it's waves of another kind other than salt water that most clearly inform it. Those would be the tides and eddies of memory, which—frequently against our will—keep dictating who we are long after we're sure we've escaped their ill effects, and they're the strongest, most energizing part of the Fallen Angel Theatre Company's new production of this play at the Clurman Theatre.

Memories emerge from the conflict between mother Morag (Aedin Moloney) and daughter Fiona (Barrie Kreinik) during their vacation, although they're hardly of the warmly nostalgic variety. As Morag complains about Fiona's worth and purpose as a woman—for her, children really are all—we flash back to the duo's early years, when they were both grasping at independence following the departure of Morag's husband. Both are longing for connection in their own ways, but finding that difficult given the conflicting, even hypocritical morals passing between them (Morag is quite strict about what Fiona does alone in bed, but is rather less so about what she does with the men she brings around), and that ignites conflicts and resentments that filter upwards through the decades.

Central to their difficulties is Fiona's sexual awakening, which occurs in various stages: first more playfully and (in theory, anyway) innocently with her friend, Vari (Zoë Watkins), and later through Ewan (Colby Howell), a handsome drifter of a boy. But Macdonald so strips these of anything even remotely florid that you can't view them as anything other than symbols of the control Fiona wants to assert, and examples of how far she's willing to go to wrest it from her mother. One of the most brutal conflicts between the two, a discussion over who should buy the "sanitary towels" Fiona so desperately needs, demonstrates better than anything else the power that both can wield and neither understands.

The evening, then, plays as sort of an insider's history of the women's movement, if from the other side of the Pond. Though mother-daughter strife has been a popular topic for about as long as there's been theatre, the undercurrents here of shifting politics and reorienting attitudes brand it as something much more recent and, to no small degree, of its time. We do eventually discover how the parallel time frames tie together, but the fact that every scene focuses (in most cases, fairly heavily) on sex gives the drama a sense of sameness that the final resolution isn't strong enough to overcome.

Upon its London premiere in 1984, When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout probably played forcefully as a modern and necessary feminist history play à la The Heidi Chronicles. (The show debuted in America 14 years later, in a production starring Roberta Maxwell.) But as last year's revival of Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize winner proved, that sort of innovation dates quickly. Today, you can still be impressed by Macdonald's singular focus on how Fiona and Morag were both defined by the sexual attitudes and politics of the eras in which they grew up, but the lack of much additional clarifying detail means that what surrounds them is inevitably a too-shallow view of who these women are and what they mean to each other and to us.

Kreinik gives a committed, stolid performance that beautifully anchors Fiona as a woman who owns herself, and she makes lush yet gradual transitions between her grown and growing selves that let you see how a peppy little girl gradually became a cynical, put-upon adult. She makes all the past scenes glimmer, but no one else accomplishes quite as much: Moloney is a sympathetic Morag, but she doesn't convey the full impact of Fiona's development and betrayal on her; Watkins is a cipher, whose contrasting young and older versions of Vari (she joins Fiona and Morag on their trip) don't align with each other as completely as they should; and Howell's Ewan comes across as perhaps too appealing and too involved, seeming more like an energetic type who lives by day than a layabout who flies by night.

Under John Keating's adequate direction, and on Luke Hegel Cantarella's dilapidated beachside set, the muted earth tones of which match the women's dulling recollections, the performers all do the best they can, and they're able to keep When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout sufficiently engaging on the surface. But if you're still able to appreciate Macdonald's play as a tribute to what was, you remain distracted by its unwillingness to dive down to explore the depths of Fiona and Morag's individual struggles. Instead, you're just sort of left splashing around, with the bigger questions moored nearby, but never being untethered to reveal a route to the bigger, far more interesting sea that lies just beyond the horizon.

When I Was A Girl I Used To Scream and Shout
Through May 8
Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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