There was a time, not that long ago, when showing a little independence of mind in Ireland or England could land you in very considerable trouble. Especially if you were born female, history shows.
In fact, for most of the 20th century, it was often remarkably dangerous to be different. In both societies the available roles for woman, or more precisely the roles that women were permitted to play, were constrictingly narrow. They included wife and mother and very little else.
So the obvious head-scratchers, the women who stood out or actively defied easy classification, often found themselves being dealt with roughly.
In Airswimming (now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York) the sad and quietly affecting 1997 play by British playwright Charlotte Jones, she introduces us to Dora and Persephone, a pair of likeable misfits, for whom the road has already run out before the curtain even rises, we discover.
In the past the play has been described as a comedy, but this production, directed by John Keating, wisely keeps an eye on the individual cost to the forgotten pair, who are based on real life women.
I don’t know why previous reviewers described this play about two women trapped in a insane asylum for the criminally insane for their entire adult lives as a comedy, and thankfully neither does this production.
As Dora, the no nonsense lifer who alternates between hope of escape and despair that it will never happen, actress Aedin Moloney inhabits the role so completely that her character leaps to life from the opening scene.
Dora is a shrewd observer of other people, and she knows that she’s in for the long haul. For that reason her focus is on devising strategies that will help her endure until she’s released, or on biding her time until she makes a break for it.
Into this world comes Persephone (played by Rachel Pickup), a tall, willowy blond who hasn’t quite grasped that the trap set by a world of men has already closed around her.
Persephone tells herself that there’s been a terrific misunderstanding, that her father will rescue her (it turns out of course that he’s the one who had her committed).
Ireland has its own long history of condemning challenging women to indentured servitude for their entire adult lives, and that awareness informs this production, which unfolds in illuminating flashbacks.
Dora and Persephone begin as young women, and we watch helplessly as their lives are stolen, lost in domestic drudgery, scrubbing baths and sweeping stairs without acknowledgement or reward.
Along the way Jones makes multiple references to Greek myth in an attempt to give some classical heft to their already inexpressibly tragic circumstances. But the play doesn’t need it; frankly, it’s already resonant enough.
Jones picks Doris Day as the role model these women have been asked to aspire to, and Persephone’s idolization of the virginal Hollywood star does remind us how sexless and insipid the greatest embodiment of the female ideal was at the mid-century point.
The problem is that the metaphors in the script that are meant to underline their plight end up being heavy handed. How much poetry is there really in prolonged and pointless suffering, particularly when it has been created by a society that wants to contain and forget them?
Dora, being quite sane, has no time for romantic illusions, and she capsizes Persephone’s airy notions with judicious douses of cold hard reality.
But Jones then informs us that this tough talking woman, who has saved both Persephone and herself multiple times, has in fact been self-deceiving and full of empty bravado all along. When Dora finally loses track of time, a skill that had once helped to define her, we guess a suicide attempt is in the offing.
It’s the schematic construction of the play (it has a curiously mathematical shape where events unfold with a weary inevitability) that dissatisfies. As it jolts awkwardly from realism to magic realism, from documentary to Greek myth, from testament to satire, it holds the audience at a remove.
We don’t in the end learn a lot about these two women. They were sane and unfairly imprisoned, certainly, but what else?
Dora was androgynous and had given birth to children out of wedlock; Persephone had an affair and had the child that resulted from it taken from her before she could even name it.
Hidden beneath the playwright’s ornaments is a thoroughgoing tragedy, but as a result of her script’s almost ceaseless ambivalence, it never quite emerges.
Airswimming is playing at the Irish Rep until February 3. Visit www.irishrep.org for showtimes and tickets.