Married to the Sea, Irish playwright Shona McCarthy’s first full-length play, both compels the audience and leaves them adrift. Jo, an eight-year-old girl in Galway, Ireland’s Old Claddagh sea-faring community, longs to join her father at sea. She is left at home, where she struggles to understand family secrets and her father’s disappearance. When the secrets are revealed, however, they leave the audience bewildered and uncertain of their meaning. Siobhan Donnellan (Jo), has the difficult task of pushing the story along, as she is onstage throughout the entire play and has several long narrative monologues. She not only succeeds in her mission but is a fascinating actress to watch. Her face twists as she tries to comprehend her mother’s lunacy and widens into a grin when she’s telling a joke. McCarthy also brings depth to her role as Jo’s mother Mam, with haunting, vacant eyes that gaze out somewhere beyond the water.
The father’s character is a crucial missing piece of the story. His scenes never have the emotional weight they need to account for his strong effect on Jo. This might be due to the fact that Fiachra Ó Dubhghaill, the actor playing him, also plays six other characters (all seamlessly). The father’s character needs to anchor the story, yet he floats in and out.
The appearance of a woman named Queen of Sheba (Agnes Carlon) could be put to better use. When her name is mentioned, she emerges from behind the curtain, moves exotically and then disappears. Since she is the one who lures Jo’s father away, she demands a stronger presence, even if it is just a longer dance, so that her and Jo’s father’s actions are not as fleeting and insignificant as they currently seem to be.
In spite of its flaws, the play is imaginative and features enjoyable, lyrical language. The sea’s mystical quality permeates the story, almost suspending time, as the characters look out at the water with longing. The stage, bare save for a low table, a clothing rack, and a curtain, perfectly evokes the sea-faring town and the emptiness that both inhabits the characters and surrounds them. It would be nice to stay in this real yet magical land longer once the story elements are worked out because Married to the Sea has the potential to be an emotional and transcendent theatrical experience. As it stands now, see it for an original and compelling premise but be prepared for a wave of confusion.