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Keegan Offers Balanced "Bold" At Gunston

Theatre displays its Irish roots with powerful play.

Sometimes all the elements of a production are in balance and when that happens the result is invariably impressive. All the elements come into place for the Keegan Theatre as they open a new production of a play set in deeply troubled West Belfast in 1990, a play written not by an Irish playwright but one born in Scotland who lives and works in London. Author Rona Munro gets the human anguish of life in the midst of uncontrollable violence just right and the Keegan Theatre, with the help of four fine actresses, presents it with a sense of seriousness that reflects both respect of and affection for the material.

"Bold Girls" spans generations in this look at the life of women who are without their husbands or fathers due to the violence that has rocked their corner of the emerald isle. It is a bleak and depressing corner at that.

Still, they find ways to raise the next generation, support each other and even share some private pleasures, while the sound of gunfire or the passing helicopter intrudes into their kitchen, yard, alley or even a neighborhood club.

There's Nora, played with a fatigued resiliency by Linda High, and her daughter Cassie, holding on to any shred of normal life, played with sharp intelligence by Helen Pafumi. Their next-door neighbor, struggling to maintain a normal environment within the walls of her home for her children

(who are never seen on stage) is portrayed by Ghillian Porter with a striking honesty even when more pain and disillusionment is her lot.

Finally, there is the intriguing Carolyn Agan as an initially mysterious character whose connection with the other women comes out as the evening progresses.

THE PLOT IS revealed slowly in this four-scene play, but there is nothing slow about the way it casts its spell. Perhaps it is the fine ensemble acting, with each actress actually listening to the lines of the others and reacting to the revelations in believable, sometimes subtle ways. Perhaps it is the initially unexplained presence of Agan's waif of a character.

Whatever it is, the contrast between the everyday routine within the apartment walls and the evidence of violence without is striking.

Keegan's long time resident set designer has come up with another environment of note. He takes full advantage of the width of the room at Gunston to place the apartment on one side of the playing space and the club where the women go to get away from the tension for an evening on the other.

They are separated by an alley as threatening as any no mans land separated by chain link fencing with a cinder block retaining wall bearing a pair of names chalked inside a heart -- mute testimony to the resiliency of human hopes and affection.

Dan Martin's lighting design adds to the effectiveness of the presentation, especially the warm sun shining through the kitchen window at a key moment, and Maria Vetsch's costumes are right for the times, the place and the characters.

There is nothing particularly plush about the production, nothing that calls attention to itself or seems the result of a high budget being spent on nonessentials. Indeed, often it seems they have had to make do with less than the designers would have wanted. However, the balance between the elements, the choice of pacing for the scenes and the apparent camaraderie of the cast combine to weave a spell.

Keegan's Artistic Director Mark A. Rhea directs the play in Theatre II of the Gunston Arts Center for the first half of a two-location run. The show plays the black-box facility at Gunston on South Lang Street through May 13 and then it relocates to the Church Street Theatre in Washington for a four-week run between May 18 and June 11.

Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.