It’s not the Dublin you’d find today, or even the Dublin of The Troubles. In David Brendan Hopes’ The Beautiful Johanna, Dublin is an apocalyptic nightmare, riddled by bomb blasts, machine gun bursts, and — perhaps most frightening of all — fire. Yet the subject of the play is neither horror nor hell. It’s love.
You won’t likely be thinking of love as the play opens. In the precious little light of a plainly depopulated street, a balding, gray-bearded gentleman, carrying an artist’s portfolio, is accosted by a couple of street waifs. There’s no question what they’re after: food, money, anything of value. Instead, they get a few pieces of art. There’s value in that, too, but not the superficial kind.
The older fellow escapes. He’s Reiner (Darren Marshall), a painter who has scoured abandoned and burned-out buildings to gather up the last scraps of the Dublin art world that used to be. His own home is isolated in a part of the city where no one else lives, and a bomb has blown a hole in the ceiling above his bed. Still, he keeps working. One reason he can continue to paint is that The Beautiful Johanna (DiAnna Ritola) still visits his apartment studio, as she has three times a week for the last twenty years. As she strips and poses (yes, there’s a long scene with partial nudity, and it’s a tribute to the strength of these actors that we’re more deeply engaged in their relationship than in ogling the beautiful actress), we learn not only the recent fate of the city — ruled with violence by the unseen but ever-present Mullaneys — but that these two, who obviously adore each other, despite their testy banter, once were lovers. What sundered them? His brief dalliance with a young man, and youth itself: they were too inexperienced and naïve even to understand what they meant to each other.
Elsewhere in the city, the waifs who accosted Reiner — Oliver (Adam Kampouris) and Trudy (Trinity Smith) — have an argument of their own, in the hovel they call home, even as they tack up their stolen artworks, one an early portrait of The Beautiful Johanna. These two, also, are in love. The problem is that Oliver’s as much in love with their compatriot, Terence (Casey Morris), as he is with Trudy. All three aren’t hampered only by their age; they’re plagued by an ignorance bred of being born at the end of civilization. They have made a family of each other, for the sake of survival. Yet they want so much more.
Terence has been scavenging, and as the first act draws to a close, all learn that he has been seriously wounded in the process, and one of the other waifs must brave the terrible streets to search for help. The second act contains so many surprises, it would be wrong to reveal anything more. Suffice it to say that the grimness of Act One — pervasive despite the mostly remarkable and frequently funny dialogue — is alleviated by unexpected realignments, and that a stunningly scripted and delivered monologue makes for a pure coup de theatre.
Hopes may be Asheville’s most proficient, prolific writer; in poetry and prose, he has earned himself a substantial reputation, and he may be on the verge of doing the same with his playwriting. It’s a shame that he seems to have an easier time getting produced elsewhere than here. His work isn’t flawless, but if he had more opportunities and support … In The Beautiful Johanna, clunky dramaturgy occasionally rears its head; in the central scene between Reiner and The Beautiful Johanna, for example, the extensive exposition simply isn’t plausible, dramatically. But this is a minor concern. Hopes may be more poet than dramatist in this instance, but he knows and presents his characters cunningly and compassionately. One cannot help but love them, too.
The performances are uniformly wonderful. One can quibble about the slippery, decidedly different Irish accents; one can note that, though there is plentiful tenderness between Oliver and Terence, when the young actors enacting them touch they are not altogether believable as lovers. No matter. This is a true ensemble performance, well worth seeing for the acting alone.
The actors have been guided, and the play plumbed, with a sure hand, and great thoughtfulness and delicacy, by director Steve Lloyd. Major contributions to the realization of Hopes’ vision have also been made by Crawford Murphy (set, lighting, and costume design) and Brian Sneeden (sound design).
Side note: before and after the show, and during intermission, The Red Wellies delight with well-played, traditional Irish music. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the play, and the curtain call tune comes up jarringly, considering the emotional ride the audience has just gone on. Nevertheless, The Red Wellies are a welcome addition to the evening’s entertainment.
The Beautiful Johanna, by David Brendan Hopes. Directed by Steve Lloyd. Presented by Black Swan Theater. Set, lighting, and costume design by Crawford Murphy. Sound design by Brian Sneeden. Stage Manager: Chris Martin.
With Darren Marshall (Reiner), Adam Kampouris (Oliver), Trinity Smith (Trudy), DiAnna Ritola (The Beautiful Johanna), and Casey Morris (Terence).
Shows at N.C. Stage (part of the Catalyst Series). Friday and Saturday, Jan. 22 and 23, and Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 28 to 30. 7:30 p.m. $15, $10 for students. Contains strong language, brief nudity, sudden loud noises and the use of strobe lights.
Cast photo by Andrew Fedynak.