Review: SPIT

by Lynn on August 27, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Falstaff Family Centre, Stratford, Ont. Until Sept. 4, 2022.

Written by Noelle Brown

Directed by Seana McKenna

Lighting and sound by Stephen Degenstein

Costumes and set by Bonnie Deakin

Cast: Fiona Mongillo

Seána O’Hanlon

Siobhan O’Malley

An interesting (odd?) play that looks like it’s going in one direction, and then veers in another direction. Well-acted and directed with conviction.

We are in Cork, Ireland. Jess (Siobhan O’Malley) and her younger sister, Nicole (Seána O’Hanlon) have just buried their mother, Betty. While they are checking their mother’s computer, they realize that Betty had been communicating with a young woman named Alana (Fiona Mongillo)—her daughter that she gave up for adoption when she was 18 because Betty wasn’t married. The news stuns Jess and Nicole.

Alana had reached out to Betty after all those years and connected with her. Now she wants to meet her two sisters. All Jess can think is that Alana’s interests are not above board and she wants to horn into any inheritance that might be available. Nicole is more trusting. The friction between Jess, as the older sister, and Nicole, as the younger, comes up. They disagree on what to do about Alana. Jess wants to ignore her.

The two sisters consult their Aunt Alice for more information. In a few wonderful phone messages with the lilting voice of Seana McKenna, we learn from the Aunt that Betty spent time in a “Mother and Baby Home”—also called a Magdalene Laundry, when she was 18. She had the baby and the child (Alana) was put up for adoption and adopted by a family in Canada. Alana appears and all she says she wants is to find out about her ‘new’ family and fill in the missing parts of her past.

Playwright Noelle Brown has a scene in which Alana sits at her computer looking up the definition of DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid), the make-up of a cell that carries the genetic information that notes how a person is related to someone else.

When Alana appears it’s clear she doesn’t want anything from the sister except information about them, their lives and their shared mother. What they and the audience get in return is information on the horrifying existence of the “Mother and Baby Homes” run by the Catholic Church. Residential Schools were not enough horror, the Church also ran these homes for unwed mothers.

What would happen in Ireland, a predominantly Catholic country, would be that a family, father, boyfriend etc. would exile the pregnant girl and take her to the Mother and Baby Home, also called a Magdalene Laundry. The Laundries were started in the 18th Century (and not just in Ireland either). The last one closed in Ireland in 1998. Horrifying.

The unwed mother, or “fallen woman” would be taken to the Catholic Church that would take the young woman and put her to work in the laundry until she came to term. The baby would be taken away and put up for adoption. The mother would never be told who adopted her child, or when, or where the child was taken.  Often the young woman’s family would not take them back and the woman would stay in the laundry, working. In one facility 155 unmarked graves were found of young women who had died there, either through suicide or dying in childbirth or other means. Horrifying.

Alana told of her extreme efforts to find out who her birth mother was. The father was never listed on her birth certificate. She told of a report of the Laundries when the horrors were revealed. She told of going to a tribunal to testify of her situation. She was there for longer than an hour and only a few words of her testimony were used. It was a whitewash of the situation-Quelle surprise!

Other surprises are revealed in the play. So while Noelle Brown’s play looks like it might go in the direction of the drama between the three sisters for whatever reason—the mysterious sister who wants her share of inheritance– Brown’s intention seems to be to reveal the horrors of the Mother and Baby Homes. Interesting.

There have been films on this subject (Filomena for example). I saw a devastating play in Dublin about 10 years ago called Laundry that took place in an abandoned Catholic Church in which three people at a time interacted with characters, in very close quarters, illuminating the horrific lives these unwed mothers lived in those places. Stunning.

Spit (to get one’s DNA a person had to spit into a test tube so the saliva could be analyzed) as I said is a fascinating but odd play because the playwright seemed to be going in one direction with it but then went in another direction altogether.

What is not confusing is that director Seana McKenna and her talented cast have illuminated the concern and upset that Jess and Nicole experience when they learn of their mother’s secret past and the existence of their sister, Alana. As Jess, Siobhan O’Malley is stressed, irritable and unsettled first, at having to bury their mother, then dealing with her younger sister Nicole, who wants to continue her life as usual—a yoga practice—and then learning of Alana’s existence.

As Nicole, Seána O’Hanlon captures that irreverent attitude of the younger sister who just seems to push the buttons of the older sister. She is more forgiving of their mother and more easily accepting of Alana.

As Alana, Fiona Mongillo is confident without being arrogant. She has gone through a lot of soul searching and investigation about her background and is now at ease with every discovery. All the work has happened before the play. Alana’s tenacity to find the truth is impressive. Her calmness at retelling the horrors of the Laundries is needed to reflect fairly on a terrible situation.

Seana McKenna has directed with a sure hand that does not ‘intrude’ on the telling, but beautifully establishes the relationships of the three sisters.

Bonnie Deakin has costumed the sisters in contemporary clothes that are casual and not fussy. Her set has the requisite cross on the wall suggesting a Catholic home, and a shelf with photos and cards of condolences and other memorabilia.

Another play by Here for Now Theatre well worth checking out.

Here for Now Theatre presents:

Plays until: Sept. 4, 2022.

Running Time: approx. 1 hour, 20 minutes. (No intermission).

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