During the intermission of John B. Keane’s chilling and somewhat bleak play “Big Maggie,” currently on the boards at Albany Civic Theater, I amused myself by the different ways I could rid the world of the titular character. Squashed by a train? Struck with an ax? Run through with an awl? Embedded in ice? All those options seemed too kind, too tame. Whatever I chose, she needed to suffer and slowly. But as quickly as the methods of disposal arrived, they were tempered by a nagging question — “Does she have a good reason to be such a battle-ax?”
WHERE: Albany Civic Theater, 235 Second Ave., Albany
WHEN: Through Sept. 15
HOW MUCH: $15
MORE INFO: 462-1297, www.albanycivictheater.org
When you look at it from her point of view, perhaps she does. But her actions are a bit severe.
Ireland, 1969, and Walter Polpin is dead. And while other mourners grieve, his wife. Big Maggie (Kathleen Carey), is not among them. Now free from the physical and emotional hell that was her marriage, Maggie wastes no time in placing her long wished plan into action. Acting a modern Celtic Medea, she kills her four children’s hopes and aspirations by revealing that there is a new will, one that leaves them nothing. The store, the farm, and their hoped for inheritance–is all hers.
Is this payback for the years she suffered under her husband’s physical abuse and endured his infidelities while they stood by and watched it happen? Keane keeps the tension high. And when the long buried recriminations start to surface, they leak and ooze like treacle.
Written during the height of last century’s era of female empowerment, when becoming a strong, independent and singular woman was something new, Keane’s play raises some fine questions about responsibility and compassion but offers no direct answers. At times, the play seems a stretch as you wonder how a woman who has swallowed that much rage, disappointment and loss could have survived this long without having been sideswiped by a heart attack or stroke.
Maggie could be played with one note — a female Charles Bronson with a Dublin “Death Wish” upon her family — but with the keen eye of director Chris Foster and the excellent Kathleen Carey, Maggie’s vision for her future is clear and present, containing all the required danger.
Keane has created a complex mix of heroine and harridan with Maggie, and it is deftly delivered by Carey. With a County Kerry accent layered thick with controlled rage, she creates a perfect menace, crafting with a flat smile and stern voice an artful balance of hurt and revenge with motherly omnipotence. It is challenging to portray an unredemptive character, but Carey rises to the occasion. Staying true to course with no crack in Maggie’s resolve, the result becomes terrifying.
Fine work is also turned in by the rest of the cast. Amanda Martini-Hughes, Paul Dedrick, Patrick Rooney and Annie Bunce as the put upon children, each have moments that growl and snap. Isaac Newberry’s slapped down salesman Teddy is well played, and the moments of levity offered by Patrick White as a hapless suitor for Maggie and Kate Hans and Phil Sheehan as the town’s busybodies are more than welcome.
“Big Maggie” is not a subtle evening of theater and perhaps time has not been kind to the story, but what is refreshing, if that is the right word, is that the ending rings true.
The horror of hypocrisy that Keane exposes remains uncovered and the evening is devoid of a neat happy wrap-up. The truth is allowed to stay. And at the close of the play as Maggie sits alone in her chair, we feel no pity and neither does she. If there is a whiff of epiphany or remorse, it, too, has been pushed away. Maggie is alone — sitting and waiting in the ever increasing darkness slowly devoured by loneliness, and hopefully some hungry mice.