Stage Door Review
Tuesday, August 30, 2022
by Noelle Brown, directed by Seana McKenna
Here For Now Theatre, Falstaff Family Centre, Stratford
August 25-September 4, 2022
Nicole: “Small world, small Ireland”
Here For Now Theatre is currently presenting the world premiere run of Spit by Irish playwright Noelle Brown. The play is really two types of play in one. One part is a study of two Irish sisters who find after their mother’s death that she kept substantial parts of her life secret from them. The other part is a series of lectures about the difficulties that the Irish state and the Catholic church put in the way of adopted children who are trying to find their birth mothers. The factual information is fascinating and horrific but as a whole Spit seems to be a play whose goal is to illustrate the factual information rather than to stand on its own as a play.
At the start of the play we meet the sisters Jessica (Siobhan O’Malley) and Nicole (Seána O’Hanlon) who have just returned home after their mother’s funeral. Both are depressed and on edge. What disturbed Jessica most is Nicole’s desire to read through their mother’s e-mails that are still on her laptop. Nicole is especially interested in the repeated attempts of someone named Alannah to get in touch with their mother. Jessica assumes its just some sort of scam. Nicole thinks it might be something important.
A phone call to their knowledgeable but slightly batty Aunt Alice (Seana McKenna) confirms that there really was someone named Alannah in their mother’s life. This news turns the sisters’ world upside down. They suddenly have a half-sister, but why their mother gave her up for adoption is a mystery and why their mother never mention this half-sister is an even greater mystery.
Interspersed with the drama of the two sisters are short lectures delivered by Alannah (Fiona Mongillo) directly to the audience. She tells us about DNA and about DNA testing kits. She makes an excellent point that few people think of. If you are looking for people relate to you those people must also use a DNA testing kit from the same company or they won’t be found. As we learn Alannah has used the DNA testing kit as a last chance to find her birth mother. You send a sample of your saliva (hence the title) to the company and hope that your mother has used the same company.
In Alannah’s case her mother has used the same company and has been looking for Alannah. As we discover in the most disturbing part of the play, Alannah’s mother was sent to what was called a Mother and Baby Home where young unwed mothers were sent to give birth and where their babies, if they lived, would immediately be adopted.
The story of Mother and Baby Homes is too complicated to discuss here (the programme for Spit has a long description of them), but what stands out is that both mothers and babies were abominably treated with infant mortality far higher than the national average with 75% of children dying before their first birthday. The discovery of a mass grave of babies in Tuam near a Mother and Baby Home sparked a national controversy. The final report of these homes was published in 2021 and revealed that about 9000 children died in these homes.
In the play Jessica and Nicole finally agree to invite Alannah to meet them. Jessica is cold and unfriendly whereas Nicole tries to be kind. Jessica still suspects that Alannah may be an imposter who is seeking something from them, but a further phone call to Aunt Alice and looking further back in the mother’s e-mails reveals the truth of what Alannah has told them. When Alannah describes to the sisters what sorts of cruelties were practised in the Mother and Baby Homes, the sisters, even Jessica, soften to this new stranger who is also a half-sister.
The dramatic part of Spit is very well written with the progress of the sisters from doubt to awakening and forgiveness movingly portrayed. The mini-lectures, informative as they are, are always jarring since they take us out of the dramatic action. I only wish that Brown had thought of some way on presenting the facts about Mother and Baby Homes within the drama rather than as Brechtian alienation devices.
Under Seana McKenna’s detailed direction the acting is all of the highest calibre. Siobhan O’Malley and Seána O’Hanlon interact like real sisters from when we first meet them. Their personalities are perfectly complementary with Jessica conservative and suspicious and Nicole a bit spacey but compassionate. O’Malley and O’Hanlon’s scenes with Mongillo are filled with emotional complexity. Mongillo’s Alannah shows an inner battle between trepidation and her desire to belong. But once the sisters know more it is wonderful how they gradually overcome their doubts and their anger at their mother’s awful secret to take a step toward acknowledging Alannah as one of them.
Whatever one may think about the two-sided nature of the play, there is no doubt about the commitment of the director and actors to the material. Spit proves a fine showcase for all their abilities.
Photo: Siobhan O’Malley as Jessica, Seána O’Hanlon as Nicole and Fiona Mongillo as Alannah; Siobhan O’Malley as Jessica and Seána O’Hanlon as Nicole. © Here For Now Theatre.
For tickets visit www.herefornowtheatre.com.