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Pumpgirl

The Irish Repertory Theatre revives Abbie Spallen's brilliant play about Northern Ireland and the pain beneath the headlines.

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Labhaoise Magee in a scene from Abbie Spallen’s “Pumpgirl” at the Irish Repertory Theatre (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

History forgets far more people than it remembers, even if one happens to fall prey to that old paradoxical curse of existing in interesting times. The three Northern Ireland denizens in Abbie Spallen’s Pumpgirl are certainly not the types to be noticed by someone who isn’t looking for them. Although caught in the wake of The Troubles, the region’s three-decade bloody sectarian conflict, their sufferings and regrets aren’t connected to any sort of grand political struggle but, rather, are squarely, and brutally, anchored in the personal. Still, as Spallen’s bleak triptych of longing and despair coalesces into a single devastating canvas, her characters’ lives become as thoroughly unforgettable as anything that’s been recorded in the headlines.

Told as a series of alternating, interlocking monologues, there is a Rashomon-esque quality to Pumpgirl that grows more obvious as the play’s story comes into focus. Not only do the relationships between the characters subjectively deepen as they each take their turns speaking under lighting designer Michael O’Connor’s isolating glare, but a life-altering crime is also revealed, one that is committed with  stomach-churning cruelty. Though, unlike in the Kurosawa movie, its details are never in doubt.

At the heart of the play is the eponymous Pumpgirl (Labhaoise Magee) who works at a crummy, middle-of-nowhere petrol station, where she endures vicious taunts about her non-binary appearance and crude sexual advances that unambiguously carry with them the threat of violence. It’s a distressingly marginalized life, eventually made much worse by the person Pumpgirl unfortunately sees as her one source of respite: “No-Helmet” Hammy (Hamish Allan-Headley), an amateur race-car driver, whose nickname is equal parts description and life philosophy. Whereas the smitten Pumpgirl regards Hammy as “pure class,” even though he’s cheating on his wife with her, the audience knows from listening to Hammy that his encounters with the naive young woman trapped in a dead-end job are more about opportunity and convenience than anything else; and, of course, he has a litany of other misguided female admirers providing him with both, too.

Hamish Allan-Headley in a scene from Abbie Spallen’s “Pumpgirl” at the Irish Repertory Theatre (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

More bravado than brains, Hammy values maintaining an alpha-dog image among his pathetic entourage of toxically masculine friends over all other human considerations. His understandably angry and melancholic wife Sinead (Clare O’Malley) is the play’s resident expert about her husband’s failings, having borne the brunt of most of them, but even she doesn’t fully appreciate the combined destructive potential of Hammy’s hedonism, idiocy, and callousness. Tragically, by the time Hammy finally arrives at his own moral reckoning on all of these counts, it’s much too late, because he’s already done the irredeemable.

For her beautifully subtle revival of Spallen’s mid-aughts play, director Nicola Murphy relies heavily on the extraordinary talents of her three actors, who never exchange a line of dialogue, but somehow still manage to connect. At least in part, it no doubt stems from the Irish Repertory Theatre’s cramped downstairs space, where theatergoers can often feel like they’re in the play, too. Scenic designer Yu-Hsuan Chen makes complete use of these close quarters, inventively squeezing in three separate sets on an L-shaped stage that extends out into the audience. With clever visual economy, she gives us Sinead’s bedroom/kitchen, Hammy’s race car, and Pumpgirl’s petrol station, whose verisimilitude is aided by small touches like a rack of Tayto Cheese and Onion Crisps.

But as much as we come to believe that these characters occupy the same provincial corner of the world, there is also a developing sense that each of them is utterly alone in it, even as their stories start to collapse together. Sinead, portrayed with an affecting mix of vulnerability and rage by O’Malley, spends her days wondering about the unfairness of life and her nights trying to avoid her husband’s touch, while Hammy, who Allan-Headley embodies with disturbing perfection, is a dangerous prisoner of his doltish narcissism.

Clare O’Malley in a scene from Abbie Spallen’s “Pumpgirl” at the Irish Repertory Theatre (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

As for Pumpgirl, Magee smiles her way through the character’s indignities and disappointments until, finally, something happens and she can’t anymore. It’s a courageous performance, one that isn’t always fully comprehensible to the audience, especially when Pumpgirl’s tenderness toward Hammy continues beyond all reason. But nothing Pumpgirl does ever registers as false; it all seems to come from a lifetime of hurts that many of us just can’t possibly fathom.

Magee’s most effective moment actually comes after O’Connor’s harsh spotlight has moved to another actor, but our eyes still wander to the darkness to find her. Murphy knows that they will, because Magee has just delivered an achingly horrific monologue, which turns the entire play on its head. Standing there in the shadows, Magee’s acting hasn’t stopped, and we quickly feel as if we’re witnessing rather than watching. But her character’s pain is so palpable that it’s difficult to stare at her for too long; our eyes desperately want to find the light again. It all adds up to a stunning example of a writer, director, and actor all discovering the same empathetic note and using it to break you apart.

Pumpgirl (extended through January 12, 2020)

Irish Repertory Theatre

Scott McLucas Studio Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-727-2737 or visit http://www.irishrep.org

Running time: two hours and 10 minutes including one intermission

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About Joseph Pisano (41 Articles)
Joseph Pisano writes about theater and film. His work has appeared in Cineaste, The Atlantic, The Village Voice, Slant Magazine, and several other publications. He has now lived in New York long enough to be called a New Yorker by people who have lived here all of their lives.

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