Reviewed by G.L. Horton
QE2 Players was launched when two expatriated actresses, the British Rosemary Ryding and the Australian Jennifer Jones, confident of their performing powers and dissatisfied with the "Mum" parts available for them to play, decided to become their own producers. They formed QE2 on the actor-manager company model. Why not? It worked for Minnie Maddern Fiske. A Toast To the Ladies is a bill of two forty minute plays that show off the formidable acting skills of the pair, and also those of the expatriatedly Irish Carmel O'Reilly, who rounds out the cast in both plays. The production marks considerable progress towards the QE2 company goal, which the performers explain in the program notes is to produce "plays that deal with older women as individuals in their own right."
Ayshe Raife's Cafe Society takes place in a dismal East London coffee shop where three pensioners have been meeting regularly for tea and gossip. The women face the prospect of losing each others friendship and support when the run down little cafe closes. Dolly (Jones)'s solution to their looming displacement is the simplest. She has searched out a similar shop in a near-by neighborhood to which they can transfer their meager custom and so keep the friendships going, The other two women believe that it will be too difficult for them to get to the "new" cafe. The effect of aging bodies coupled with low incomes has been to restrict their lives to only those pleasures that are cheap and near at hand. Just a three block walk up a hill may be impossible physically; just a 10% rise in the cost of tea or a snack may put that pleasure out of reach. And in fact, once the ladies are interacting over their tea it seems as if their present friendship is a makeshift, "company" as a pale substitute for real compassion and intimacy.
Other than their loveless isolation and grim respectable poverty, the three have little in common. Dolly, a childless widow, claims that she once had a blissful marriage, but her dour temperament. invites skepticism. Jones' Dolly has a face that is settled into permanent depression. There are no ghostly laugh lines, and nor any other marks of remembered bliss. Dolly's first impulse, always, is to find fault, and point out the fault to others-- though Dolly backpedals every so often when she realizes that a too insistent pessimism may deprive her of an audience.
The more optimistic Amy (O'Reilly) has had a career in the theatre-- a very minor career, but clearly one that led her into breeches of the repressive code of the respectable lower class. Amy had a "friend" or three, rather than a husband; and she has high hopes that moving in with another such friend will rescue her from the present threat of loneliness. Her cafe chums make a great effort to refrain from discouraging Amy's hopes, and try to provide comfort when her immoral housing plans fall through -- though for Dolly biting back "I told you so" is difficult indeed.
Hetty (Ryding) has so lost touch that she can't tell what's going on, with herself as well as with those around her. Hetty talks about her nervous stomach and delicate appetite as she gobbles down sausages. She proposes to move nearer her sister for companionship, conveniently forgetting that her sister dislikes her. She thinks the characters in the series she watches on the telly are real people -- certainly they are realer to her than her friends Amy and Dolly are. Hetty is sweet-natured, if fearful, and she earnestly tries to connect with the others: but in truth, she hasn't a clue.
Under the generous direction of Nora Hussey the actresses bring loving detail to these limited lives. Accent, gesture, costume, and facial expression assure that we in the audience know these women much better than they know themselves. Even the thankless fourth role, Lisa Foley as the mostly silent cafe waitress, is fleshed out and worthy of attention. Playwright Raife is not quite so considerate. She wraps up her play with a "happy" ending that flies in the face of what little hard-won self knowledge the women have achieved in the course of it.
During intermission the actors shed about a quarter century, returning as a mid-life trio in Geraldine Aron's The Donahue Sisters. Aron's play is set in the attic of the sisters' family home in Ireland. In childhood the attic was their playroom, and through the years it has remained where they go for privacy and serious talk. Their father lies near death in a bedroom below, and the sisters have returned from their far-flung husbands and families to attend the crisis. Seated on child-sized chairs around a game board, surrounded by discarded toys, the sisters start off with exposition disguised as backbiting comedy. Each sister first presents an idealized picture of her present life -- she has grown healthy, wealthy, and wise since last they met. Then, under the influence of vodka and old times, they reveal the sordid lives of quiet desperation behind the respectable facades.
Dunya (Jones) -- she renamed herself Dunya to impress the fashionable American crowd she runs with -- reveals that her glamorous husband is chronically unfaithful and verbally sadistic. Annie (O'Reilly)'s husband isn't verbally sadistic, exactly -- he hasn't spoken to her for three years. He does communicate his orders and criticism through the children, however; and he lets out a kind of steady eruptive disparagement in the form of a stream of explosive farts. Rosie (Ryder) may have it worst of all. Her teenage children are totally out of control, terrorizing her and her husband and extorting all the family's money to spend on drugs and partying
Speaking of dope: at this point Dunya brings out a joint of magic marijuana. A toke or two and the play suddenly shifts into expressionist mode. The sisters, bathed in Richard Testa 's blue light, reenact in shamanistic fashion a primal scene that took place in this very attic room long years ago, a dreadful secret crime committed in concert when they were children of nine, eleven, and thirteen. This shift was much too fast for me. My suspension of disbelief just hadn't been sufficiently primed to make the leap into a repressed and class-bound Irish past where such a crime, and such a successful cover-up, would be possible-- nor could it deal with three ordinary-seeming housewives out of Ayckbourn practicing ceremonial cruelty a la Jean Genet. But the actresses believed, and performed the improbable with thrilling panache. Then, with barely a blink, they resumed their masks of normality, but with a difference. They had found in their witchy ritual an empowering bond of ruthlessness. Errant husbands, children, neighbors beware -- when the Donahue sisters unite, reality doesn't stand a chance.