City Paper is not for tourists
If ornately wrought stories are, as some claim, Ireland’s great export, then Solas Nua is D.C. theater’s answer to Louis/Dressner—that collective of oenological evangelicals whose mission is introducing Americans to Old World wines that express the distinct character of their home territories. The latest singular vintage from the Solas cellars (fear not, the metaphor dies here) comes from a playwright who’s as interested as the company is in painting pictures of the marginal figures left behind by Ireland’s now-fading “Celtic Tiger” economic resurgence. Three figures, in the case of Pumpgirl: a young gas-station attendant (Madeleine Carr), the race driver she’s had an ongoing liaison with (Dan Brick), and the man’s embittered wife (Stephanie Roswell), who’s pondering an affair of her own with a man she spies at the local market. Their dramas are at once interlinked and oddly isolating—they’re told in three overlapping monologues, with characters speaking to the audience, never to one another. They play out in that bit of Northern Ireland that’s just over the border from the more affluent south, with the shadow of the late Troubles never far in the distance. There are laughs, to be sure, and a vivid sense of place, but darkness, no surprise, lies deep at the heart of Pumpgirl. A richly descriptive writer, Spallen generates profoundly disturbing images, including a rape, consensual sex that’s nearly as joyless, and a concluding sequence that’s hard-coded with enough suspense to still the breath in your lungs. If it doesn’t, quite, it’s because Linda Murray’s otherwise intense staging is fonder than necessary of gilt-lily sound cues and portentous light changes. The former are merely intrusive, but the latter—designed to help keep Murray’s actors in isolating silos of light and dark, even as they crowd one another on Flashpoint’s tiny Mead Theatre Lab stage—vent the rising tension, slowing that grim concluding march to a sluggish waddle. Pumpgirl is a worthy effort, no argument, and not one I’ll soon forget. But you’ll be forgiven if, when Spallen finally delivers one character up to inevitability and pulls another back from a genuinely horrifying brink, your own internal monologue goes something like, It’s about time.