Theatre Journal 49.3 (1997) 373-375
The Mai. By Marina Carr. McCarter Theatre, Princeton, New Jersey. 9 November 1996.
The Mai is set in the midlands of Ireland over the span of a year from 1979 to 1980, and explores the hopes and disappointments of four generations of women within one Irish family. Its one hundredyear-old matriarch is Grandmother Fraochlán, an opium-smoking, opinionated, selfish old woman. Grandma's obsession with her long departed husband is in many ways the root cause of her clan's insecurities. As she says to her family in typically outspoken fashion, "I would gladly a hurlt all seven a ye down tha slopes a hell for wan nigh' more wud tha nine-fingered fisherman an' may I roh eternally for such unmotherly feelin'" (Marina Carr, The Mai [Loughcrew, Ireland: The Gallery Press, 1995], 70). The inimitable Myra Carter deftly makes this complex character both sympathetic and venomous, and steals virtually every scene in which she appears.
Grandma's granddaughter Mai (pronounced May) has been abandoned by her self-centered husband Robert to raise their four children alone. A woman of great beauty and many gifts, Mai builds an exquisite home for Robert on Owl Lake in the hopes that he will someday return to her. While he does so at the onset of the play, their relationship eventually deteriorates until Mai realizes that their marriage is beyond repair and that she cannot go on without him. Katherine Borowitz gives a memorable performance as Mai, and masterfully reveals the depth of her anguished passion for Robert in the climactic scene of act 2.
The play atypically provides a number of excellent roles for mature actresses, and director Emily Mann has found an outstanding ensemble to play these parts. Mai's sisters Beck and Connie are especially well-performed by Colleen Quinn and Miriam Healy-Louie. The husky-voiced Quinn strikes just the right note for the outwardly jovial yet inwardly fragile Beck, and Healy-Louie finds wonderful nuances of humor in the potentially dour role of Connie. All of these actresses also handle Carr's poetic language with considerable skill. Unfortunately for the production, the key roles of Robert and Mai's daughter Millie are not as effectively cast. James Morrison is rather stiff as the charismatic Robert, and despite some powerful moments of anger in act 2 generally delivers a one-note performance. The character of Millie is crucial to the play, as she interprets her family's story as an adult narrator while also participating in its events as a teenager. Although Kali Rocha's ethereal quality works well for Millie, she struggles vocally with the character's long passages and does not achieve the level of complexity which her more seasoned fellow actresses bring to their roles. As a result, these monologues often hinder the production despite the lyrical beauty of Carr's language.
One particularly effective aspect of the production is Mann's use of a haunting sound effect to echo Millie's tale of the cry a swan releases when lamenting its fallen mate. Crafted by composer Bakida Carroll, this disturbing noise punctuates the action periodically and underscores the ghostly image of Robert carrying the drowned body of Mai with which Mann ends each act. Her suicide is also foreshadowed in Millie's account of the Irish legend "The Pool of the Dark Witch." In this myth, the lovely Coillte falls in love with Bláth, who eventually leaves her to live with the dark witch. The devastated Coillte's tears create a lake where the bog witch banishes her for eternity. The Mai's own seemingly fated death in Owl Lake is thus anticipated when Millie notes that all of the family knew [Begin Page 375] the legend but that "we were unaffected by it and in our blindness moved along with it like sleepwalkers along a precipice and all around gods and mortals called out for us to change our course and, not listening, we walked on and on" (42).
Mann's production is also impressive in its ability to convey the full range of laughter and sorrow of these characters...