Each year I’m lucky to see a lot of shows in Peterborough and many deserve to be celebrated. But only once or twice a year do I see one that is so powerful that it crawls deep inside and keeps me up at night thinking about it. This year that show is Eclipsed, running from November 4th to 19th at the Peterborough Theatre Guild.
Directors Jennifer Gruer and Patricia Young presents Irish playwright Patricia Burke Brogan’s groundbreaking play, which raised both eyebrows and awareness when it made its debut in 1992 by exposing the long-concealed stories of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries.
When Brogan began writing Eclipsed in the 1980s, the Magdalene Laundries were an Irish institution that still existed but that nobody spoke about. As a young woman, Brogan had first-hand exposure to the women who were chained to the laundries when she was a Catholic novitiate assigned to overlook the women who resided there. Her experiences and observations in the laundries changed her, and she left the Church behind. Instead, she brought the plight of the women of the Magdalene Laundries to the stage in her award-winning and moving play.
Originally produced at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1992, Eclipsed won awards — but Brogan also suffered backlash from members of the public. However, the show would prove timely when, a year later in 1993, a mass grave of former Magdalene Laundry workers was uncovered in Dublin, which not only shocked Ireland but finally forced the nation to examine this dark reality of their society.
Before taking in a performance of Eclipsed, a little research on the history of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries will help a lot. I encourage you to at least read the Wikipedia article before you go.
Established in 1765, the Magdalene Laundries were virtual prisons run by the Catholic Church of Ireland for “fallen women.”
First created as an attempt to control prostitution, these laundries were filled with women who the church deemed to be unfit for society, and who were forced into what has become deemed slave labour.
It wasn’t just prostitutes who kept the laundries running. Over time, orphans, women with mental disabilities, and, most importantly, unwed mothers were forced into manual labour which the church felt was for their spiritual good. Hidden away from the public and forgotten by society, it wasn’t until recently that the women of the Magdalene Laundries finally had their stories told. Eclipsed is one of the early, and most influential, platforms that brought their stories to the surface.
The play takes place in a laundry in the fictional Irish town of Killmacha, where a young novitiate Sister Virginia (Rachael Nicholls) is put in charge of five women chained to the laundry system. For the most part, all of the women are unwed mothers whose babies were taken away from them and taken to the nearby orphanage. While the women toil as prisoners in the laundries, the fathers of their children walk free and unashamed.
The majority of the play simply works as a snapshot of these women as they join together in their own sisterhood, maintaining their sanity in the laundries by finding small moments of joy. Often this comes in the form of letters from their children, moments of fantasy and song, or by finding simple luxuries such as cigarettes or lipstick still in the pockets of the clothes they wash.
Each of the women has a distinct personality, bringing her own story to the production.
Bethany Heemskerk plays Mandy, a loveable dreamer obsessed with Hollywood stars and especially her favorite, Elvis Presley. Sharon Gildea plays the dowdy Nellie Nora, who may be the sweetest of the women, but also the most defeated. Zoe Baker plays the new girl Juliet, who, as a daughter of a former Magdalene Laundries woman, has graduated from the orphanage to the laundries. Never knowing a life outside of the walls, Juliet both fantasizes and fears what lies on the other side.
Stephanie Kraus plays Cathy, who suffers physical illness as well as the memories of the twins she has not been allowed to mother. And finally there is Lauren Murphy as Brigit, who is the strongest willed of the women. Not satisfied with her fate, Brigit fights back, making attempts to escape and openly challenging the authorities around her.
Together these actresses create a strong grouping which the audience quickly falls in love with. Together they find small ways to break out of their sad existence and reveal their loves, their losses, and their tragic reality.
Eclipsed also features a stand-out performance by Shelia Charleton as Mother Victoria, the head nun in charge of the laundry. Charleton plays Mother Victoria like Nurse Ratched in a habit. Completely unsympathetic to the women she looks over, Mother Victoria truly believes she is saving the women in the laundry from themselves and sees her work as coming from God. She doesn’t see herself as the jailer she is.
But where Mother Victoria doesn’t appear to have a heart, Rachel Nicholls as Sister Virginia certainly does. Recognizing the imprisoned women’s plight, Virginia spends the play questioning her faith and her place within the church as she watches the suffering of the women in the laundries. The connection between Virginia’s role and the playwright is obvious; Rachel bring the heart, as well as the conscience, to the production.
There is little an audience can do to prepare itself for the emotional experience that is Eclipsed. Much of the promotion around the show seems to present it as a show with comedic moments. Don’t be confused by this: Eclipsed is not a comedy and the laughs are few and far between. In fact, the few moments of joy are also the saddest scenes of the night.
It is hard to watch these women with nothing who dream of a life they are denied, and who find small moments of happiness in the things everyone else takes for granted. Throughout the entire performance, I had a lump in my throat so large I forgot to breathe a few times. I cried real tears during Eclipsed, and then got into my car afterwards and cried again on my way home just thinking about the performance I just saw. Eclipsed is just that kind of show.
While Eclipsed is not a happy play, it is an important one. It reveals a brutal part of Ireland’s history that needs to be told.
I spent hours last night and again this morning researching the history of the Magdalene Laundries, and watching documentaries and reading confessionals on-line. And don’t think that these laundries were just in Ireland. They existed all over Europe, as well as in Canada and the United States. These are the stories of enslaved women lost in time. Eclipsed allows their suffering to be recognized and their stories to be told.
Well produced and performed, Jennifer Gruer and Patricia Young and their company have the talent and the tenderness to make this show come to life and hit all the right emotional notes. Eclipsed is amongst the best shows I have seen in 2016. Take the time to see this production — and bring along a box of tissues.
Eclipsed runs Thursdays to Saturdays until November 19th at the Peterborough Theatre Guild (364 Rogers St., Peterborough). Shows start at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee show on Sunday, November 13th. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $11 for students, and can be ordered by visiting the box office from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and one hour before curtain time on days of performances, or by calling the box office at 705-745-4211.