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Two plays of note at 1st Irish Festival

[caption id="attachment_67066" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Mary Murray and Darren Healy in "Noah and the Tower Flower""]

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Noah and the Tower Flower by Sean McLoughlin • 1st Irish Theatre Festival 2011 • Fishamble: New Play Company (Ireland), co-produced With The Drilling Company • Through October 2, 2011

Sean McLoughlin's tough-minded urban romance, "Noah and the Tower Flower," won the Irish Times Best Play Award four years ago. And it is definitely a romance, despite its harshness, particularly when performed by the two extraordinary actors who created the roles.

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Those performers, the galvanic Darren Healy and the funny and moving Mary Murray, have been playing Noah and Natalie in far flung locations including Bulgaria, Romania, and now, for the first time, New York, where the play is part of the 1st Irish Theatre Festival 2011.

In McLoughlin's densely packed work, these two luckless young citizens of Ballymun, a rough part of Dublin, meet in a bar and, on an impulse, adjourn to Natalie's flat for an encounter which swings wildly from tentative courtship to potentially lethal violence. She is a recovering drug addict, and he is a near-hysterical layabout with only the most fragile grip on normal life, living under the control of his own manic energy.

Director Jim Culleton's insightful investigation of the characters has resulted in more credible effects than the way such flawed stage figures are usually presented. The effect is both intelligent and powerful.

Natalie lives alone in a modest urban flat, obsessed by the fear that at any moment she may slide back into a life marred by her long-standing addiction to street drugs. She is fragile, but not weak. It would be easy to see her as an individual who, with a little luck, could build a normal life free of harmful entanglements. She is, however, desperately lonely, suffering the pain which extreme isolation can bring.

It is this solitude which causes her to bring Noah home with her, something she would normally never do with a stranger. When she tells Noah how unusual such an action is for her, you believe her without question. And, in his way, so does Noah.

As for Noah, he is clearly someone who has lived more closely to real peril than Natalie has. When he produces a gun he's been carrying around in a sack with, one assumes, everything he owns, it comes as no surprise, except to Natalie, who still has a measure of innocent credulousness. There is, she reveals, an area of her character which is still naïve.

Natalie and Noah are real-seeming and fully dimensioned. It would be easy indeed to imagine their lives beyond the few brief scenes and moments playwright McLoughlin has provided. That's something you can't say of a lot of otherwise admirable plays. The performances by Murray and Healy rank among the genuine achievements of this year's 1st Irish Theatre Festival.

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Lucia's Chapters of Coming Forth By Day Written and Directed by Sharon Fogarty • Mabou Mines, 150 First Ave., NYC • First Irish Theatre Festival 2011 • Through October 2, 2011

Ruth Maleczech is one of the finest actresses in New York. She's also one of the most courageous, as anyone who remembers her performance as "Queen Lear" a couple of decades ago won't really need to be reminded.

Now she's back, as part of the current 1st Irish Theater Festival, playing James Joyce's daughter, Lucia, whose sanity was endlessly in question: she was institutionalized, mainly in Switzerand, for nearly 50 of her 75 years.

Fogarty's encounter with Lucia Joyce has produced a work of theater which is primarily a monologue, produced here by Mabou Mines as a vehicle for Ruth Maleczech. Paul Kandel, excellent as always, is also sporadically on hand as James Joyce, sometimes merely as a silhouette, sometimes fully fleshed, but almost always as an annoyance to his daughter, who resented his lifelong attempts to maintain a relationship between them.

Sharon Fogarty's approach to Lucia Joyce is interesting, but not entirely successful. Nor is it particularly compelling.

Whether Joyce's daughter was in fact insane or merely eccentric is a question which has obsessed scholars for decades, without an acceptable answer having ever been reached.

In Fogarty's view, Lucia Joyce was, in some areas, a genius. The portmanteau words and expressions which come to her with ease may have convinced her that she had influenced aspects of her father's writing, but the evidence in Fogarty's account isn't particularly convincing.

Fogarty's production takes full advantage of a set and lighting by Jim Clayburgh and of subtle projections by Julie Archer.

Sharon Fogarty has, over the years, proven herself to be an earnest, gifted writer, and, beyond doubt, Ruth Maleczech is a genuine treasure.

"Lucia's Chapters of Coming Forth By Day" will probably by of greatest interest to audiences already interested in the work of both women, with emphasis on the always remarkable Ruth Maleczech.