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Theater Review - Mother courage

Bold Girls movingly views Ireland's 'troubles' through female eyes

In Theatre Gael's production of Bold Girls, spunky Irish mother Nora (Joanna Daniel) tells two colorful stories about confronting soldiers of the occupying British forces. Whether they're arresting her son-in-law or threatening to trample her beloved "bamboo suite" in her living room, Nora never quails from standing toe-to-toe with uniformed troops and daring them to hit "a woman old enough to be your mother!"

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The shocking thing about Nora's tales is that the English soldiers invariably do strike her, and don't pull their punches, either. It's almost equally startling that despite the violence in the stories, Nora still repeats them as comic yarns. Something seems to be innately "Irish" about standing up to adversity and making a joke of it, even when the efforts fail.

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Rona Munro's Bold Girls follows Nora and three other women who bear up to the deprivations of Northern Ireland at the height of "the troubles" in the late 1980s. Directed by Jeanette Stinson, Bold Girls contains moments of unsteadiness, but movingly — at times, humorously — captures the feminine perspective of life during wartime.

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For different reasons, men have abandoned Nora, her daughter, Cassie (sultry Amanda Cucher) and Cassie's best friend, Marie (LeeAnna Lambert). Like many women of their generation, their husbands, fathers and brothers have either been killed or arrested. Or they've simply gone, leaving them to raise children and carry on by themselves. Widowed Marie treasures the memory of her late husband, while vivacious Cassie dreads her spouse's impending release from prison.

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The armed struggle frequently intrudes in the women's mundane attempts to work and play. An outbreak of burning buses interrupts laundry day. A raid disrupts a night out at the pub. Cassie nurses unrealistic dreams of escaping Belfast, while Nora reduces her aspirations to the bare minimum. She poignantly prizes a bit of cast-off fabric with which she hopes to redecorate: "Fifteen yards of remnant, and that'll be my front room."

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A mystery enters in the presence of an enigmatic 16-year-old girl in white (Diana Brown) who arrives dripping wet at Marie's front door. She gives her name as "Deirdre," evades direct questions and hints that she knows the other women's secrets. Is she on drugs? Is she a ghost? And why does she seem so familiar to Marie? Deirdre's monologues frequently evoke the grayness of Belfast and contain a plainspoken lyricism.

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Brown, Cucher and Lambert's performance all capture the camaraderie and annoyance in the relationship of the heroines of Bold Girls — they get on each other's nerves, but they're all they've got. They gossip amusingly or argue about the decade's pop culture, such as the Jodie Foster movie The Accused. Otherwise, their dialogue frequently focuses on the way their men have failed them, but the play's most wrenching moments come when the women turn on each other. Just when Lambert seems almost too serene as Marie, her voice drops into an intimidating growl when she learns of an unforgivable betrayal.

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The intimate confines of the 14th Street Playhouse's third space suits the constraints and close quarters of Bold Girls' setting. Stinson's production features some awkward moments, like a mournful song that plays distractingly under one of Marie's speeches, or the physical awkwardness in Marie and Deirdre's final confrontation.

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Bold Girls feels like a bookend to plays from earlier this theatrical season. Daniel performed in Synchronicity Performance Group's Women and War, which applied similar female-oriented themes to global armed conflicts. Some graffiti on Bold Girls' set evokes Ireland's Easter uprising of 1916, dramatized by The Plough and the Stars at Theatre Gael last fall. Those shows, like Bold Girls, suggest a universal quality to warfare in Ireland and beyond: Men run up the tabs, but women ultimately pay the emotional costs.