Theater Review: ‘The Scourge’

A tragedy with humanity
January 27, 2020 Updated: February 12, 2020
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NEW YORK—Irish Repertory Theatre’s downstairs W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre is now presenting a unique offering: It is an autobiographical study of playwright-actor Michelle Dooley Mahon’s mother Siobhan, as she spent her last months, dying from Alzheimer’s, in a nursing home in Wexford, Ireland.

But don’t be disheartened. It is not all doom and gloom. Mahon shrewdly captures the personalities of those around the place: Helpers, other patients, medical personnel—all adding up to a picture of a seldom experienced place and time.

Ordinarily, I would not be drawn to a one-person show, but this piece offers an intimacy and reality seldom seen in theater. Not only does the fact that it is based on real life guarantee that reality, but Mahon lends her particular voice to the work. “The Scourge” is no less than a paean to her beloved mother, and the piece is rich with feeling, with a text that is often lyrical and even poetic.

Some introductory material details something about Mahon’s early life, how she felt herself different, how she felt herself an outsider. Perhaps these were elements that enabled her to become her mother’s loyal caretaker when tragedy struck. Why did her brother not pitch in to share the care?

“Because,” he stated, “I couldn’t look, I couldn’t look.”

Mahon has theatricalized the presentation. She carries a doll about at all times. It is only later that one realizes that the doll represents her mother. She gives it a bottle from time to time. She has become her mother’s mother.

Set design by Mark Redmond features a large wardrobe, or closet, at the rear of the stage. When opened occasionally by Mahon, one can see some clothing hanging. Later in the show, she brings out a small cradle in which she places the doll-mother.

At one point, Mahon wheels her mother out to view nature, the trees, the flowers, the singing birds. Not that the older woman is aware of much at that point, but the daughter feels that it is something that her mother senses, and appreciates on some level.

One cannot escape indignities in this setting. That’s its reality. I was astonished to hear that the mother-patient must be hoisted up by a winch in order to have the unpleasant but necessary experience of an enema.

Sibhan’s death throes were painful and poignant to hear. There is panting, there is straining to continue to breathe, the panting becomes more faint. At last there is silence.

After Siobhan is readied for her last voyage, to the cemetery, many of the staff gather to state their affection for Michelle’s mother, saying what a fine woman she was, how they appreciated her. “She will be missed!” several exclaim.

The striking looking Michelle Dooley Mahon strongly holds stage for the presentation, varying her performance both vocally and physically.

Ben Barnes, former artistic director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, held the reins for this show. “The Scourge,” an official selection of the 2020 Origin 1st Irish Theatre Festival, was originally produced at the Wexford Art Centre in 2018 as part of the Wexford Fringe Festival Opera.

‘The Scourge’
Irish Repertory Theatre
W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., New York, N.Y.
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or Irishrep.org
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Closes: Feb. 2

Diana Barth writes for various theater publications, including “New Milennium.” For information, visit diabarth99@gmail.com