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Tir na nOg
FINANCIAL TIMES

March 4, 2008

Tir na nÓg, Magic Theatre, San Francisco

When Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls first appeared in 1960, the novel was banned in the author’s native Ireland for its candid portrayal of the sexual awakenings of two teenage Irish girls. If O’Brien’s narrative about the journey of the studious, romantic Caithleen Brady and her feisty childhood friend, Barbara “Baba” Brennan, from their small rural hometown in the west of Ireland to a strict Catholic high school and finally to independent life in Dublin seems innocent by today’s standards, her new stage adaptation of the book seems positively naive.

The lingering whiff of seediness and exploitation that caused a number of Catholic priests in Ireland to organise public burnings of O’Brien’s Bildungsroman in churchyards around Ireland back in the 1960s is largely absent from the theatrical version, re-dubbed Tir na nÓg. Meaning “Land of Youth” in Gaelic, the play, currently receiving its world premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in a spirited production directed by Chris Smith, vibrates with spring-like energy and self-empowerment.

From the giddy-breathless episodic structure of the plot to the play’s several flights of whimsy, including a midnight dormitory dance number performed to crooner Bobby Darrin’s “Under the Sea”, Tir na nÓg skips along like a childhood game of hop-scotch. The play affectionately captures the love-hate relationship between the two main characters thanks to the contrast between Allison Jean White’s understated Kate and Summer Serafin’s loudmouthed Baba. Meanwhile, the pervasive presence of Deborah Black as the bard-like “Singing Woman” (a mythical character created specifically for the stage adaptation) and jaunty, fiddle-accompanied renditions of many well-known Irish ditties such as “Whiskey in the Jar” and “Dirty Old Town,” steep the production in Irish lore.

As a result of its heartwarming optimism, O’Brien’s nostalgic homage to the pretty innocence of youth comes dangerously close to resembling a Disney musical at times. Audiences resistant to the idea of being transported through an emerald lens to Blarneyland may find themselves craving a touch of the peaty bleakness of O’Brien’s previous two Magic-produced dramas, Triptych and Family Butchers, to temper Riverdance alumna Jean Butler’s toe-tapping dance numbers and the low-life characters’ ebullient, whiskey-tinged camaraderie.

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