In his poetic play “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” Irish playwright Eugene O'Neill stated that “there is no present or future – only the past, happening over and over again – now.” Compatriot wordsmith Marina Carr took this sentiment to heart when writing “By the Bog of Cats.”
The play, which premiered at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1998 and is currently on stage at Ensemble Theatre, tells the tale of Hester Swane (Derdriu Ring), a middle-aged woman from a nomadic breed who has experienced a lifetime of abandonment and is unable to live her life without the past haunting her present and dictating her future. It does so literally, with the appearance of her dead half-brother (Nicholas Chokan) and a reaper-like spirit referred to as the Ghost Fancier (Nate Homolka), as well as figuratively as sepia-toned memories of her runaway mother fill her head.
This has turned the proud, perceptive and fearless Hester bitter, defensive and angry. It has tainted her relationship with her 7-year-old daughter Josie (Lexi Cowan) and Josie's father, Carthage Kilbride (Daniel Telford), who tells her “I’m up to me neck in another life that can’t include ya anymore” on the day he is to wed the young and moneyed Caroline Cassidy (Erin Moran). And it has tainted her standing in Bog of Cats, a bleak, foreboding and now frozen rural landscape in the Irish midlands, where she is perceived as feral by the community and downright dangerous by Caroline’s hardhearted father (Bob McCoy).
Carr goes one step further in her employment of O’Neill’s words by basing her epic play on a play from the past, Euripides' “Medea,” which tells us that her provocative but often plodding drama leans toward the tragic. And, like “Medea,” this play is a star-vehicle for an actress who can master the intense dialogue, raging temperament and immense physicality required of the lead role.
Ring, who can get a standing ovation reading the phonebook, has most certainly mastered them. She unearths all of Hester’s courage and psychoses, and her genuine melodic brogue – Ring was born in Cahersiveen, a town in County Kerry, and trained at The Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin – adds a necessary layer of authenticity to this production.
Only a handful of other actors come close to matching and sustaining Ring’s inflection, but everyone in this stellar cast – particularly Julia Koliban as Daniel’s self-important mother, Maryann Elder as the town’s blind soothsayer, and Laura Starnick as a good-hearted local – can keep pace with her performance.
Director Celeste Cosentino and scenic/lighting designer Ian Hinz choose wisely in their provision of an expressionistic environment to house this play, which emphasizes its otherworldly elements and recurring themes of displacement and dispossession. But knotted bedsheets dangling from the rafters in the background and suspended window frames to their left, all set against a bare backdrop, don’t contribute much to the storytelling. They neither bear the weight of nor create a sense of momentum for the play's wealth of drama, which makes this play seem longer than its 2-hour run time.
Carr is far from the first Irish writer to advance O'Neill’s observation into a full-length treatise. But in this Ensemble production of her “By the Bog of Cats," it is likely one of the best acted.