A Red Orchid Theatre offers the U.S. audience its first look at ‘Strandline’ from rising Irish playwright Abbie Spallen.
The juggernaut that is contemporary Irish theater has familiarized American audiences with the work of such writers as Martin McDonagh, Mark O’Rowe, Conor McPherson and Enda Walsh. Perhaps less well-known is Abbie Spallen. In 2009, A Red Orchid Theatre mounted “Pumpgirl,” the show that had pretty much put Spallen on the map. This week, the company gives her work another go with the U.S. premiere of “Strandline,” in which the dialogue that ensues after a man’s death at sea makes for a mysterious post-mortem.
“Pumpgirl” followed the tangled relationships of a man and two women living in the hinterlands of Northern Ireland; “Strandline,” too, is located in a quiet corner of the country, but the atmosphere is far from cozy. Nominated for two prestigious awards on both sides of the pond — The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize here and the U.K.’s Meyer Whitworth Award — the piece rides on waves of suspicion and mistrust, all expressed with a bite that both hurts and humors.
Not shy about denouncing what she see as the insularity and backwardness of her own country, Spallen minces no words as she ponders the advance of her own career. “Very often when you have that initial success, you find yourself surrounded by people who now feel entitled to tell you how to write, like you wandered in somehow with no mind of your own. I really only want to be a better playwright today than I was yesterday and I try to choose projects that enable me to do that. You’d be surprised how unpopular that can be. The pursuit of a career in theater can very often inhibit growth as a writer. I’m so not a ‘brand’ person. It’s an art form, not a stadium sport. We need to bloody respect ourselves more.”
Meanwhile, Spallen is eagerly awaiting A Red Orchid’s rendering of “Strandline,” directed by J.R. Sullivan. While penning the piece, Spallen was obsessed with the work of towering 19th-century playwright Henrik Ibsen. “I wanted to explore subtext until it killed me,” she says. “And it’s wonderful to watch [J.R.] and these actors at A Red Orchid just munch that stuff up. I spent five days in rehearsal and I don’t think I’ve laughed so much. I may have embarrassed myself.”
‘Strandline’: Oct. 23–Dec. 7, A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells. $15 previews (through Oct. 26), $30-$35 thereafter. For tickets, call (312) 943-8722 or visit Aredorchidtheatre.org.