Macdonald wrote the play on a dare from her husband actor Will Knightley who said that they could afford another child if her play was produced. Performed at London’s Bush Theatre in 1984, it won Macdonald the Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright. She was shocked to discover that she was the only other female British playwright being performed in London other than Agatha Christie at the time. The child that resulted is now film star Keira Knightley. Although it was a hit running a year, the play took 14 years to be seen in New York in a workshop production at the John Montgomery Theatre that ran during August of 1998 with Canadian-American star Roberta Maxwell as Morag. The Off Broadway premiere is being staged by Fallen Angel Theatre Company which specializes in presenting “outstanding and dynamic Irish and British plays written by and about women.”
When we first meet them, Morag has taken her 32-year-old daughter Fiona on a vacation to the Eastern Scottish seaside town in which Fiona spent her formative years. Estranged from her daughter and disturbed that Fiona has given her no grandchildren, she wants to spend some quality time with her on the beach. However, returning to her childhood home has bad memories for the taciturn, introspective Fiona and her mother chiding her with, “No man, no child, no money,” doesn’t help. And then Fiona’s best friend from childhood, Vari, whom she hasn’t seen in 17 years, shows up. Morag has invited her to join them, possibly because Vari, married to a doctor, has three children, and could be a role model for Fiona who doesn’t seem to want to marry or have her own children.
This leads to a series of flashbacks starting in 1955 when the girls were four up until 1966 that alternate with the scenes on the beach in 1983. We discover that Morag, product of her upbringing, has taught Fiona to believe that sex is dirty, boys only want one thing, and that God will punish her for impure thoughts. With Vari playing leader, Fiona and her friend explore their sexuality with a great deal of misinformation. With Morag not interested in sex, it is not surprising that her husband leaves when Fiona is ten.
However, Morag is only 37 and still attractive to men. Finding a new boyfriend who has to move to the Middle East for his job in the oil business, she plans to sell the house and have Fiona live as a paying guest with Vari’s family. Brought up to be a prude, Fiona is furious at her mother abandoning her for sexual fulfillment with a man not her father, and plots to wreck Morag’s chances of leaving by getting pregnant at 15. The resulting consequences affect both of their lives.
Both Fiona and Vari are representative of the generation that grew up before the sexual revolution but had the opportunity of the new freedom. Vari has chosen to marry and have children, but resents the choice she made. Life is easier when her husband isn’t home. She also envies Fiona the freedoms that she has as a single career woman able to join movements and come and go as she likes. Morag is still stuck in her pre-sexual liberation teachings and at 60 still believes that sex is dirty. Unfortunately, Fiona who is living as a liberated woman is still dragging around a great deal of baggage. The title suggests that these younger women expected different things from life when they were girls growing up together.
While When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout is now very much a period piece, expressing views little held by women, it very successfully delineates a caustic mother-daughter relationship and is extremely detailed about the problems between them. On the other hand, in dealing with the theme of women’s sexuality, the play’s doesn’t talk about much else. We never learn what Fiona majored in at university or what she does for a living as an adult. Although Morag says she has a good job, we never know what it is. And while Vari and Fiona haven’t met in 17 years, we don’t know if they have kept in touch or why they drifted apart. The play is a time capsule of attitudes and mores from two generations ago.
Director John Keating, a regular at the Irish Repertory Theatre, has obtained sharp portrayals from his quartet of actors, though some of the choices seem problematic. Aedin Moloney gives a very strong performance as Morag, seen at 60 and also in her 30’s. She seems to have decided to make her as unpleasant and as small minded as possible, giving her little or no redeeming qualities, and certainly obtaining no sympathy from the audience. While her character keeps telling her daughter that she will always love her, we see little evidence of that as she nags and complains and brings up hurts from many years before. As Fiona, Barrie Kreinik is enigmatic as the 32-year-old woman since the author gives her little to say. As the teenage girl growing up in the 1950’s and early 60’s, she is curious, adventuresome and open-minded. She is also portrayed as jealous and vindictive, but her mother’s teachings are partly to blame.
Self-deprecating Vari played by Zoé Watkins is much more successful, laughing at her weight problem as an adult and passing along incorrect information as a girl. As the mentor to Fiona, she is quite amusing as an authority on subjects she knows little about. The only male in the play, Colby Howell is affable and engaging as Ewan, the boy with whom both Vari and Fiona have a crush. However, the play doesn’t give us much of his backstory, not even allowing him to say anything at all in the first act. The various Scottish accents vary from Moloney’s quite thick dialect to Kreinik’s almost imperceptible one, although this may be intended to suggest that Fiona lives in a more cosmopolitan city than her mother, while Vari and Ewan are products of the unnamed Scottish seaside town they grew up in.
The stylized beach setting by Luke Hegel Cantarella works surprisingly well for the indoor scenes as well as the various outdoor ones. M. Florian Staab’s sound design puts us on the ocean shore with its crashing waves and bird cries. The costumes by Nikki Delhomme are descriptive of how the women see themselves, from their social status to their views of their own bodies. The original music by Paddy Moloney, founder of the Chieftains and father of the actress playing Morag, brings a touch of Scotland with its bagpipes and jigs, alternating between melancholy and merry.
As the audience has no way of knowing the time period, Fallen Angel Theatre Company has made a big mistake in not stating in the program that Sharman Macdonald’s When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout begins in 1983, the year the play was written, and goes back 28 years earlier. There is no getting away from the fact that this ground-breaking play is now a period piece reminding us of how things used to be for women in terms of their sexuality. In 2016, it reveals how far we believe we have progressed in these matters in the sixty years that have passed.
When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout (through May 8, 2016)
Fallen Angel Theatre Company
Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.fallenangeltheatre.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission
Blistering mother-daughter drama takes place in Scotland two generations ago.