Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Long before the pandemic made indoor theater a relic of the time before social distancing, Solas Nua became Washington’s finest purveyor of site-specific theater, hosting shows in bars, shows on piers, and shows in private homes. The small company dedicated to contemporary Irish theater (the name means “new light” in Gaelic) is remarkably adept at finding the right space for the right play, and there is no better group to bring live theater back to the District.
Solas Nua opened its ingenious staging of Deidre Kinahan’s In the Middle of the Fields Saturday at P Street Beach park, a grassy slope west of Dupont Circle that borders Rock Creek. Audience members check in at a makeshift box office across from the 23rd Street NW Shell station and ramble down the hill to pick up noise-cancelling headphones through which they’ll hear the show’s audio. Three actors deliver their dialogue live, their voices smoothly overlaid onto a pre-recorded soundscape. Caroline Dubberly, Gordon Nimmo-Smith, and Tosin Olufolabi, as composers and sound designers, devised a wondrous aural world that successfully positions patrons in the middle of literal and metaphorical fields.
Kinahan’s title references a classic Irish short story published by The New Yorker in 1961. Technically, Solas Nua is staging the drama’s world premiere, although the text began as a poem Kinahan wrote in 2019 that overlays her experience onto Mary Lavin’s short story. In the Middle of the Fields marks the Irish playwright’s return to dramatic writing after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Her lead character, Eithne (a deeply empathetic Jessica Lefkow), suffers the same fate. A city girl who married a farmer, Eithne seeks solace in a meadow long overdue to be hayed, and fears she may only escape the wilds of cancer treatment by plunging her face into a brook.
“I can hear the stream now,” Eithne says, as a gentle torrent of water pumps through the headphones. “Rushing, gushing, skittering through to the lake where she can lay her head like a lady in that great whispering calm.”
Then she’s jolted from that Opheliac strain of thought by the reminder of her gurgling baby granddaughter, and an urge to feel her husband Séan’s rough, calloused hands on her newly carved-up body.
“He’s just standing there,” she says. And actor Ryan Sellers steps up to join the dialogue as Séan. “I’m just standing here,” he says. “I want to hold her.”
“But he has forgotten how,” Eithne says. Like so many romantic partnerships afflicted by cancer, this one has lost its moorings, and its libido.
Because it so accurately depicts the social-emotional trauma of cancer treatment, In the Middle of the Fields is likely the best English-language oncology play since Wit, Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner about a literature professor diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. In the early aughts, actresses around the world shaved their heads to play Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., as did Cynthia Nixon in the 2012 Broadway production. But more than being a cancer play, Wit is a play about a struggle with dying; In the Middle of the Fields is a play about the struggle with living.
Lefkow successfully conveys the tortures of treatment on her body and mind without ever slipping into melodrama. Dubberly and Sellers, a Synetic Theater veteran, each play multiple roles, including family members and fellow patients who count rosary beads aloud in the chemotherapy suite.
“There’s always the few patients that turn back to God,” Eithne says. “Pious. Panicked. Pitiful.” A sonic jolt like bug zapper interrupts the dialogue, and onstage, Dubberly mimes a gut-twisting retch.
If you’ve seen a Kinahan play before, you know she prefers to write nonlinear narratives, and never over-varnishes the human experience. In Moment, shown at Studio Theatre in 2016, a present-day Irish family is haunted by an accidental death years earlier. Two more of her scripts received memorable stagings at Solas Nua: Wild Sky, a poignant musing on Ireland’s violent push for independence, and The Frederick Douglass Project, a colorful account of the abolitionist’s voyage to the Emerald Isle set on a southwest DC pier.
Following the flashback-heavy In the Middle of the Fields would be easier were it not staged in the middle of the city. There’s no formal stage marked out on the grass, and at the performance I attended, a man in fatigues who wandered through the park with a hulking backpack and two bags from McDonald’s turned out not to be part of the play. Ditto for the Cranberries cover songs wafting over from a Georgetown music festival, and the near-constant chorus of ambulance sirens, although at least those last two distractions were tangentially related to the show.
Come ready to focus, and be rewarded with drama that captures the swirl of emotions, overwhelming physical sensations and situational comedy of cancer treatment. That sincere recommendation comes not only from a theater critic, but a woman who survived ovarian cancer “debulking” surgery and three months of chemotherapy and arose from nine months of pain a completely altered person. If after In the Middle of the Fields you feel a need to down a shot of Jameson, Eithne, Kinahan, and I would all say, “Fuck cancer and sláinte.” Sláinte to Solas Nua, to more theater, and to whatever in life comes next.
To June 12 at P Street Beach, 1414 22nd St. NW. $55 (including admission to upcoming Solas Nua virtual programming). solasnua.org. Click here for coronavirus safety information.