The Crimson Thread

Ostensibly, one assumes that the title of this play refers to the blood ties that run through three generations of Irish sisters, as their family emigrates from their impoverished island to the promising shores of late 19th-Century America. And this is certainly part of first-time playwright Mary Hanes' intent. But intermixed within this sanguine theme are other surprisingly subtle and unexpected relationships that elevate the story from a slice-of-life epic to a revealing commentary on the emotional and intellectual propensities which are passed down through and over generations.

Photo of Diana Dresser as Bridget and Anne Penner as Eilis
Diana Dresser as Bridget
and Anne Penner as Eilis
Photo: P. Switzer
The story opens in 1869, with the Emerald Isle bristling under British rule. Bridget McDermott Flynn is visiting her sister Eilis McDermott Connelly's modest thatched-roof stone hut. As the conversation fills us in on family doings, we become aware of the stark demarcation between the two sisters' personalities: Despite Bridget's sweet disposition, she is highly critical of the Church and the Crown, both of which serve to oppress and fleece the population, while Eilis defends the status quo and worries about Bridget's association with "terrorists."

Compelling as the political issues are, of greater urgency is the question of whether Eilis is going to finally uproot herself and her kids, and follow her husband, Daniel, to America. As the argument reaches its climax, with Bridget encouraging Eilis to go, and Eilis reticent to leave her home and friends, a heart-rending letter, equal to the historical task, arrives from Daniel.

A furtive mix of feistiness and fear, Anne Penner's Eilis pushes and pulls us every which way as she wrestles with her destiny. Diana Dresser's Bridget, radiating warmth and a perspective that belies her provincial upbringing, captures us with a stunning a cappella ballad that embodies her character's spirit and carries it forward, like her mother's heirloom locket that she gives to Eilis, through the generations.

Photo of Karen LaMoureaux as Fionnuala
Karen LaMoureaux
as Fionnuala
Photo: P. Switzer
Next we land in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1889, with Eilis' daughters, Kathleen Connelly Wright and Fionnuala Connelly Kennedy, on a widow's walk, looking out to sea. Kathleen has recently lost her husband, Charley, in a storm, and Fionnuala is hard-pressed to talk her sibling from casting herself overboard as well.

As Fionnuala prods Kathleen to repeat the oft-told family tale of their trans-Atlantic crossing, playwright Hanes once more conjures a narrative out of thin air that turns a seemingly impossible emotional dead-end into a hopeful reaffirmation of life, perseverance, and family continuity where, once again, the locket is carried forward to a new day.

Photo of Elgin Kelley as Kathleen
Elgin Kelley
as Kathleen
Photo: P. Switzer
With an uplifting lilt and stubbornness reminiscent of her mother, Eilis, Karen LaMoureaux's Fionnuala is the quintessence of sisterhood, irrepressible in her determination to query and cajole until Kathleen is resuscitated back to the living. But it is Elgin Kelley's storm-tossed Kathleen that rips our sails in this episode, capturing the steadfast denial and utter despair that accompanies the loss of a loved one.

Finally, we journey to New York City, to visit with Maggie Kennedy and Nora Kennedy Fitzpatrick, Kathleen's daughter's, on a fateful afternoon in 1911 at the Ladies Waist and Dressmakers Union hall, where Maggie is preparing to deliver a eulogy for 146 victims, mostly women and girls, of the famous Triangle Shirt Factory fire, and Nora is preparing to deliver the news of their mother Kathleen's second heart attack.

Photo of Jessica Austgen as Nora
Jessica Austgen
as Nora
Photo: P. Switzer
In a scene harkening back to that afternoon in Dun Laoghaire forty-two years earlier, where Bridget argued for land reform and personal freedoms and Eilis for hearth and home, Maggie argues for the rights of labor and Nora for family ties.

Yet, as the playwright shows us, in an understated yet persuasive manner, Maggie and Nora, Kathleen and Fionnuala, Bridget and Eilis, are, at a higher level, really arguing for the same thing—the crimson thread, the ties that bind sisters, related by blood or belief, but united in love, to a common cause.

Naïve, and self-centered, Nora appears the least sympathetic of the group, yet Jessica Austgen convinces us that such behavior logically follows from the young woman's life experiences and perspective. It follows then, when her perspective is altered by Maggie's alternate explanations for events that soured Nora's opinion of her sister, that Nora's selfless act of giving Maggie the locket becomes not only believable, but a heartfelt expression of the spirit passed down with the locket: "Don't you know when you give things way you keep them forever."

Photo of Josephine Hall as Maggie
Josephine Hall
as Maggie
Photo: P. Switzer
It falls upon Maggie to put all this in perspective, and Josephine Hall brings a stateswoman's carriage and eloquence to the role. Through her, Bridget's dream of equality and dignity remains alive, justify the hardships endured by the transplanted family.

As with all Irish ensemble pieces, a key element is the dialect work, and coach Kathleen Murphy is to be congratulated not only on the well-matched brogue represented in the first scene, but the gradual dilution of this in the second scene, and it's disappearance in the third.

Director Jane Page, surprisingly the first female director of this play, elicits six strong, well-shaped performances that carry the script—short on action but long on emotion—to an emotional crescendo that ties together the themes of family, sisterhood, and political action.

The Arvada Center's production of The Crimson Thread runs through May 8th. 720-898-7200.

Bob Bows


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