For some reason you are supposed to warn people about plays that do not have loveable central characters. The same is true for plays that make you feel and think. Too, people feel they should be cautioned about plays that force them to understand life is complicated.
“Big Maggie” playing at Albany Civic Theater is all of the above. Nonetheless it is a brilliantly executed piece of theater that proves depreciating the taste level of audiences is humbug. This is a production that deserves an audience.
“Big Maggie” is about a woman who has been in a loveless, brutal marriage for 25 years. When her rotter of a husband (who was 20 years older than she) dies, Maggie takes firm control over the family store, the farm and, most importantly, the lives of her 4 young adult children.
She is hard to the point of being cruel as she dominates their lives. She has no sympathy for weakness, no compassion for those with emotions and most of all, no tolerance for anyone who disagrees with her.
She not only pushes her family away, she rejects any act of friendship from the people of the town and she even rebukes one gentle man who would have her for a wife. Eventually she chases each child away and lives in isolation in her small rural community in Ireland.
Though it is impossible to like or to even have compassion for Maggie, the magic of the play is, no matter how begrudgingly it happens, you tend to understand the woman because she believes her actions are best for her children. However, the tragedy is even when she is right, her emotionally cruel behavior negates any long term good she might do.
As Maggie, Kathleen Carey offers a smart, brave and emotionally true performance. She creates a Maggie who cares nothing about consequences or loss. She only cares that her will be done. The beauty of the performance is without showing any softness, Carey creates a woman who is strangely vulnerable. Carey makes it clear no matter how much Maggie bends people to her will the woman will never be able to be happy.
Through this stoic, mean woman Carey show the John B. Keane play is not simply a play about a harsh woman. It is also a play about raising children in a cruel unforgiving environment. Though, its themes are not epic, in many respects Keane has written the Irish version of “Mother Courage and her Children.” And too, it becomes a play about life in a specific place, time and culture.
Though Carey’s marvelous performance is essential to the success of the play, Chris Foster’s direction is equally as important. By setting a gentle mood for the people who live in the village, he creates and almost claustrophobic atmosphere that illustrates the oppressiveness of living life in a small world.
Foster also nurtures strong performances from his large cast. Patrick White brings a needed sense of humor to Byrne, the simple man who would have Maggie for a wife. Isaac Newberry, though perhaps seeming a little more American than Irish, brings a believable charm to Teddy a man who has a taste for women.
Annie Bunce finds the trusting naiveté of the fragile Gert, Maggie’s youngest daughter, Amanda Martini-Hughes, could be more saucy as the oldest daughter Katie, but she excels in going head to head in a losing battle with her mother. Patrick Rooney and Paul Dedrick are strong as the sons who are humiliated by the controlling nature of Maggie.
David Caso’s lights are an important element in establishing the mood of the play while enhancing Foster’s dramatic stage pictures. Beth Ruman’s costumes are equally as good in establishing character and setting.
“Big Maggie” is a triumph for Albany Civic Theater. It is a beautiful production of a play that few local companies would have the courage to produce. It is a work that deserves an audience.
“Big Maggie” Albany Civic Theater, 235 Second Ave., Albany Through September 15. Performances 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $15 462-1297, albanycivic.org
Bob Goepfert is the arts editor for the Troy Record.
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