Fallen Woman: a phrase that once described a woman or a girl who had lost her innocence or fallen from the grace of God. Two hundred and fifty years ago asylums were established in Europe whose purpose was to reform prostitutes and send them back into society. In Ireland the first was opened in 1765 and became known as the Magdalene Laundry, named after Mary Magdalene, once considered a converted prostitute who was rewarded by Jesus with forgiveness and love.

The institutions promised to reform the women and girls but in the early 1900's, the asylums became increasingly prison like. Inmates were forced to cleanse their sins through unpaid laundry work, long periods of prayer and enforced silence.

There are very few records to account for almost a full century of women and teenaged girls who were excluded, silenced, or punished. Due to a policy of secrecy, information about their circumstances, and the consequences of their incarceration are unknown. The last Magdalene asylum in Ireland was closed in 1996.

A little over a decade ago, Erin Layton heard a song by Joni Mitchell called “Magdalene Laundry.” Joni’s beautifully illustrated lyrics stirred and haunted Erin’s imagination as a playwright and as an actor. “Two years ago, I felt the pull to explore the land where it all began, in Ireland, to research the abandoned buildings that once housed these infamous Magdalene Laundries,” Erin said in a recent interview. “It was through speaking with the people who had intimate knowledge of the Laundries and through mining the remains of this hidden piece of Irish history that I felt driven to create a story about the lives of the present and the past.”

When Erin began working with her director, Julie Kline on the script, they figured out ways to give language back to the girls of the Laundry without compromising their silence. This ultimately became the vehicle for making MAGDALEN into a piece of theatre, a piece of storytelling. After one solid year of script-development, Erin and Julie have brought MAGDALEN to life. They’ve come to know these characters intimately, like family, and are sharing their voices with the world.

“There is something in the land, the soil, the heart of Ireland and something inside the walls of the abandoned Laundry buildings and the lost stories of these girls and women that aches to be heard,” Erin said. “There is no greater way for me to bring to life the stories of these oppressed women and to lend a sense of dignity and beauty to their silenced lives than through the art of the theatre.”

MAGDALEN will be presented by the 2014 United Solo Theatre Festival at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. There are tickets remaining for the show on Friday, October 3 at 6PM. Tickets: $18. Call (212) 239-6200. Ask for tickets for United Solo show MAGDALEN.

A review of "Magdalen," a play by Erin Layton.Magdalentheplay.com