The haggard figure in the bed will be dead before you know it, and she’s not going gentle into that good night.
“I am murderous with my own passing,” she says in Marina Carr’s “Woman and Scarecrow,” a blistering beauty of a play that rages with regret and pitch-black humor at the wasted years of a misspent life. The eight children this nameless woman has raised are some consolation, but the philandering husband she never left was a major miscalculation.
Touched with supernatural elements (like the sharp-taloned creature called the Thing in the Wardrobe, impatiently lying in wait), this is a poetic drama with a peculiar, tricky shape. When it opened in London, in 2006, Fiona Shaw played the woman — who is dying, it seems, of spite.
It’s a large role, complex in its demands, and in Ciaran O’Reilly’s staging for Irish Repertory Theater, Stephanie Roth Haberle can’t get her arms around it. The production itself — Ms. Carr’s long overdue Irish Rep debut, on the company’s tiny second stage — can’t find its tone either.
Straining for laughs, it undermines the humanity that Ms. Carr’s comedy needs to stand on. Trying to evoke the paranormal, it piles on obtrusive design elements (lighting by Michael Gottlieb, sound and music by Ryan Rumery) that overwhelm the intimate space and distract from the actions they’re meant to enhance. It feels like a production that wants to jazz up a text it doesn’t trust.
That’s especially unfortunate because, with its vengeful vigor and its grasp of the way women can be venerated into subservience, “Woman and Scarecrow” is a brilliant choice for this charged cultural moment of messy catharsis.
On her deathbed, which in Ms. Haberle’s performance never feels convincingly like a deathbed, the woman is engaged in a debate about her life with someone she calls Scarecrow. Coolly played by Pamela J. Gray, Scarecrow may be a medicinally induced hallucination, but she seems like a familiar companion — the woman’s spirit or her alter ego, a stronger self manqué. Vehemently disappointed at what the woman has made of herself, Scarecrow accuses her of resembling her bitter, angry mother, who was always “fawning over the priest.”
“I remember her belief that she was somehow inferior,” Scarecrow says, “and her living out of that belief with such conviction, such passion, such energy invested in taking second place. All of which you have inherited.”
Gut-punch insights like that don’t get much space to land in this impatient, unbalanced production. Stretches of naturalism fare better; Dale Soules, as the woman’s pious, emotionally ruthless aunt, slows things down by sheer force of will, mining genuine laughs.
The woman’s waste of a marriage is her chief and most livid sorrow, and when her husband (Aidan Redmond) shows up at her bedside, Ms. Haberle does have a handle on that fury. But by the time the woman realizes how much his cruelty has cost her, the production has been bent on comedy for so long that the audience doesn’t know what to do with heartbreak.
Woman and Scarecrow
Through June 24 at Irish Repertory Theater, Manhattan; 212-727-2737, irishrep.org. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.