An endless loop where hearts are trapped

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(c) Michael Brosilow

From left, Laurie Larson plays Clara, with Kirsten Fitzgerald as Ada and Kate Buddeke as Breda in "The New Electric Ballroom."

Review: ‘The New Electric Ballroom,’ by Enda Walsh
A Red Orchid Theatre, Chicago

Enda Walsh’s “The New Electric Ballroom,” now on brilliant display at A Red Orchid Theatre, may induce a sense of déjà-vu in anyone who saw the remarkable production of Walsh’s “The Walworth Farce” given in Chicago last year by Ireland’s Druid Theatre.

In both plays, one feels palpably caught up in the psychological tape loops that drive and shape events. Like “The Walworth Farce,” “The New Electric Ballroom” shows us a group of deeply neurotic characters who keep replaying a traumatic episode which they have shared and from which there appears to be no escape.

But where “The Walworth Farce” (2006) deals with a father’s coercion of his two sons into reliving an unspeakable crime, “The New Electric Ballroom” (2005) finds three sisters painfully revisiting dashed expectations in love. And their little circle is expanded to include a local fisherman who, though seemingly trapped in his own loneliness, may bring hope to the troubled women.

One can hardly observe either play without thinking of the existential hell Jean-Paul Sartre created in “No Exit” or, closer to Walsh’s milieu, the imprisoning loops of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” and “Krapp’s Last Tape.” Yet Walsh, a 43-year-old Dublin native now residing in London, puts a highly personal stamp on his designs for the claustrophobic mindscapes his characters occupy.

Enda Walsh is a virtuosic wordsmith, and in “The New Electric Ballroom” the sisters as well as their fisher friend speak copiously, and repetitively. They tell elaborate tales of experience and observation fraught with great detail. These reiterated stories – fables perhaps by the time we drop in — are their refuge from life’s evolving reality, and no alterations are to be brooked.

“The New Electric” sisters are Clara and Breda, both in middle age and looking their years, and Ada, who still possesses the rosy complexion and clear eyes of lingering girlhood, though she is not young.

They live together in modest means in a small Irish town near the coast. Live together and replay together the painful stories of how, years ago, Clara and Breda had their hearts broken at the New Electric Ballroom. The younger Ada has embraced these bitter accounts as cautionary tales against the world outside, which she otherwise scarcely knows. Indeed, she insists that her older sisters re-enact those hideous nights — complete with taped music and costumes and graphic recollections of their heightened sexual pitch as teenage girls — over and over and over.

As Clara and Breda, Laurie Larson and Kate Buddeke offer vivid portraits of women perpetually suffering from wounds too deep to heal. Larson’s Clara is fretful, timid, easily bullied by both of her sisters. Buddeke’s dominant Breda, no less damaged, brings hot passion to her ever-circling story of expectation and disaster.  

But Walsh’s play really turns on the possibility that Ada might escape to normalcy after all. Kirsten Fitzgerald is luminous as the girlish woman who watches these family reruns with rapt fascination. Ada’s own New Electric promise comes in the form of Patsy, the fisherman who regularly shows up at the door with the day’s catch.

Guy Van Swearingen’s Patsy is a garrulous charmer, even if he tends to repeat his reports on who’s doing what in the village. Repeat them verbatim. But it seems the women have yet to invite him in as a real visitor.

Then one day Breda gets an idea. She sweeps Patsy into their kitchen. It is, in every sense, a transformational moment. Now it is the still-blushing Ada whose pulse quickens as Patsy turns into, whoa, quite a guy. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Has it?

Through March 6. www.aredorchidtheatre.org. Call (312) 943-8722.