During a downpour on January 31, 1984, 15-year-old Ann Lovett trudged up a hill to deliver her stillborn baby in a grotto next to a statue of The Virgin Mary. Using a pair of scissors to cut the umbilical cord from her hemorrhaging body, Ann could see Granard, her tiny Irish hometown, as she bled out. After the storm ended, a group of children discovered the barely-alive Ann, but medical help arrived much too late to save her. Almost five months previously, a voter referendum added the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution, making the right to life of the unborn equal to that of a mother.
Whether those who supported this anti-abortion amendment truly valued Ann’s life is, at best (and perhaps too generously), arguable, but nobody can reasonably profess that the amendment helped Ann. Over the last four decades, journalists and others have attempted to fill in the details of Ann’s too-brief existence, but her last moments on earth still overwhelm everything that came before, with insights about Ann being in far shorter supply than headlines. Even Ann’s boyfriend could not say definitively if he were responsible for Ann’s pregnancy, which he learned about on the day of her death. As he recounted to The Irish Times, there’s also a strong possibility Ann was sexually assaulted; severe scrapes and bruises appeared on her thighs about nine months before she gave birth. Ann, however, never confirmed his suspicion.
In Made by God, playwright Ciara Ní Chuirc initially presents the audience with what it needs to see most: Ann (McKenna Quigley Harrington) on a human scale rather than a rhetorical one. A dreamy teenager, she and her boyfriend Mikey (Daniel Marconi) stretch out on the ground, visualizing a shared future. The scene is heartbreaking not only because we know they don’t have one, but also in the aching modesty of their desires.
Then, a shift in Danielle Elegy’s subtle lighting design pulls us to the near-present where Eva (Erica Hernandez), an American podcaster, is interviewing the now middle-aged Michael (Ciaran Byrne) about his memories of that idyllic-turned-foreboding day. At first, it appears as if their miked-up interactions will serve as a framing device, with Michael’s flashbacks telling us more about Ann, her family, and the community that claimed to know nothing about her pregnancy. But, as the dialogue between them keeps going and going and going, it becomes apparent that we’re now watching a new play, and Eva is the focus of it. This realization hits with a sudden thud of disappointment.
To be clear, the problem isn’t Hernandez who, like the rest of the cast, is a compelling presence, especially in the cozy confines of the Irish Rep’s basement theatre space. And director Olivia Songer bears no responsibility, either; she does her best to hold things together, despite the script’s dramatic about-face. And Lindsay Fuori’s minimalist set, Carsen Joenk’s vivid sound design, and Orla Long’s cheeky costumes all serve the play well, too.
It’s just that, as the fictional Eva supplants the non-fictional Ann onstage, the play reverses course and sacrifices its human scale back to the rhetorical, with pro-life Eva and pro-choice Michael’s gentle discord eventually turning toward the upcoming 2018 Irish referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Actually, the far more spirited debate is being held in Eva’s own head as her religious upbringing wrestles with a sense of culpability for a recent tragedy that has cast doubt on her previously rock-solid convictions. Unfortunately, the much too-on-the-nose parallels between Ann’s fate and what is tormenting Eva’s conscience amount to a bundle of contrivances that touch off a cascade of underwhelming revelations not nearly as thought-provoking as the play’s beginning scenes involving Ann and Mikey.
Ní Chuirc also wastes the promise of a daring storytelling choice. Drawing inspiration from a couple millenia of Marian apparitions, Ní Chuirc animates the statue of The Virgin Mary (Briana Gibson Reeves) in the grotto, making her akin to the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. In some sense echoing that omniscient narrator’s description of Grover’s Corners, she tells us Granard is a place where “everyone knows everyone’s business, though they try to keep their noses out of it.” That seems like a solid jumping off point if Ní Chuirc objective were to surmise why Ann ended up so brutally alone.
Ní Chuirc’s Blessed Mother, however, isn’t willing to fill in this major gap, admitting to Eva, “we can assume and guess and make up our own tidy stories all we like, but [Ann] was the only one who knew what was in her heart.” Fair enough. Still, judging by the play’s movingly empathetic start, one wishes Ní Churic had shown more faith in herself to get to the truth of Ann’s suffering. It’s too bad she listened to the statue.
Made by God (through March 20, 2022)
The Irish Repertory Theatre
W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-727-2737 or visit http://www.irishrep.org
Running time: one hour and 35 minutes without an intermission