Rona Munro's Bold Girls is true to its title. Although the play is set in bombed-out, war-torn, enemy-occupied West Belfast in 1991, this story does not tread the same political terrain as do movies like In the Name of the Father or the wrenching Some Mother's Sons. This is a domestic drama about women under stress. The true measure of the pressure they feel is not to be found in the intrusive gunfire down the block or the surveillance helicopters hovering overhead, but in the sloppy piles of unironed laundry that litter the living room. A house out of sorts reflects a mind out of sorts.
Even if they didn't speak at all, we would still learn much about the four women who inhabit this shell-shocked world without men, simply by the attention each pays to her hair. Each woman is either a widowed mother or a grieving daughter. All are victims of the pervasive violence, and they present themselves accordingly.
Marie (Amy Brixey) wears her hair cut short, just as her future was cut short when her husband was killed by British soldiers three years earlier. Cassie (Meghan Maguire) still has a husband, though she wishes she didn't. While he rots in prison, she's making the most of her newfound liberty; her long, loose tresses blaze like a fiery Irish sunset. Cassie's mother Nora (Donna Weinsting) might disapprove of her daughter's brazen behavior, but her dyed hair suggests that Nora too is trying to act younger than her age. Then there is the spectral Deirdre (Colleen Backer), whose stringy dark locks are as lifeless as Deirdre herself. At the outset there's even the intimation that Deirdre might be a ghost; she could certainly pass for one.
These women might boldly complain to each other about the Brits marching through their gardens ("I couldn't get to the church for the roadblocks," one carps), but it's the day-to-day mundane (picking out new wallpaper, watching the telly) that keeps them sane. The ever-optimistic Marie personifies the need to idealize the lost and the dead. Cassie (who was born with "a heart of flint") endorses that view when she insists "there's only so much truth anyone wants to hear." But Cassie is more of a pragmatist than the widowed Marie, who feeds crumbs to the birds every day. Cassie knows what it means to be "beaten up by wanting." She knows what she wants: She wants out. Maguire delivers a coruscating portrayal that unveils the weary sadness that lies bruised beneath Cassie's flash and flesh.
And always there's Deirdre to deal with. She pops up at the most unexpected times and does the most bizarre things. But as the evening plays out, we really don't dwell on how creepy Deirdre is or even who she might be, because every time Backer is onstage she slaps us to attention with a delivery that's more rat-a-tat than the British guns. Initially Backer demands our curiosity, then she commands our compassion. The same might be said about the entire production.
This intermissionless play requires strict attention; especially early on, the accents are a challenge. But director Eric Little has modulated the evening so that a viewer can catch up. Part of what we're catching up to is the past. One year ago this week, the Orange Girls made an auspicious debut with Going to See the Elephant. That play was set on a remote Kansas prairie in 1870, yet it shares much in common with Bold Girls. Both four-character scripts speak to the prisons people create for themselves and the incessant yearning indeed, the fundamental need to break out.