. . . by Carol Rocamora . . .

Derbhle Crotty and Cathy Belton – –

Imagine you’re sitting alone in a restaurant, waiting for a friend.  Time passes.  Gradually, you find yourself eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table.  Two women are discussing the ordinary details of their lives – friendship, work, love, sex, shared memories – with such intensity, such intimacy, that you find yourself transfixed, spellbound, unable to tear yourself away.

Well, that’s the thrill (and chill) you’ll get from watching The Approach, the alternatingly mesmerizing, unsettling and shocking new three-hander by Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe streaming on St. Ann’s Warehouse website. (see below)

The structure of this riveting, hour-long drama is deceptively simple.  In a series of scenes, two women sit at a table –untouched coffee cups between them – on a dark, stark, cavernous stage (designed by Sinead McKenna).  They speak in low, conversational tones, and you know within minutes that they share a long, intimate relationship.  As the scenes progress (punctuated by ominous electronic sounds), the pairs switch, so all three are never together.  But their pasts are inextricably intertwined.  Two – Anna (Aisling O’Sullivan) and Denise (Derbhle Crotty) – are sisters.  The third – Cora (Cathy Belton) is a flatmate they shared at some point in the past.

Cathy Belton

At first, you’re seduced by the warmth of these women, as you’re drawn into the vortex of their conversation.  The topics they discuss are superficial at the onset – renovations on Denise’s house, Anna’s trip to Sicily, Cora’s book group, and so on.  But their shared memories soon turn dark.  They remember a friend, Emily, with affection (she committed suicide).  They remember a boyfriend, Oliver (he died.)  To make matters darker, it turns out that the two sisters shared Oliver as a lover, causing a rift in their relationship because of Denise’s seeming betrayal of Anna.  But Anna says she didn’t really love him anyway – so who is betraying whom?

Aisling O’Sullivan

As time passes between each of the meetings, you realize that nothing is what it seems to be.  “Let’s get together next week” is said with such sincerity, such warmth. “Give me a call – or I’ll call you”, and so on. But it doesn’t happen. “You’re gorgeous” says one sister to the other.  Does she mean it?   “I feel your pain,” they say to each other.  Do they, really? “I love you, sis, I love you,” says Denise to Anna.  Does she?  “What kind of person am I?” asks Anna.  “A good person,” replies Denise. What is a good person, anyway, according to the play? 

And what about poor Cora, the shy friend who emerges as a sounding board for the sisters.   Late in the play, Cora reveals that a former boyfriend physically abused her, punching, hitting, and slapping her.  “But I still love him,” Cora confesses.  To which Anna replies:  “That’s understandable.”  Is it, really?  Is that what you call empathy?

Derbhle Crotty

Like Harold Pinter does in his play Betrayal, Mark O’Rowe takes us down the slippery slope of time and memory – to the lower depths of the surreal.  At different points in the play, each of the women talk about former lovers who play the same game – of constructing crossword puzzles featuring romantic moments in their respective relationships.  Was it the same lover for all three?  It is never clarified.  Time passes between each scene – but you never know how long, so that makes it all the more unsettling, as startling new developments in each of their lives are revealed in each subsequent scene.  For example, Denise is the only one who has a child, and she’s pregnant with another.  But in a subsequent scene, we learn that Denise’s husband has left her, and she never had that second child (we never learn why).

The trio of actresses is simply marvelous.  O’Rowe wrote these roles specifically for them – and they each fit, like a handmade glove.  As Anna, the lovely Aisling O’Sullivan is the most emotional – but in the end, the most inscrutable.  Derbhle Crotty’s Denise seems to be the hardest, beneath the warm surface.  As for the shy, self-effacing Cora, Cathy Belton is heartbreaking in her tenuousness and vulnerability.

Playwright/director O’Rowe saves the best trick for last – and I don’t dare spoil it for you.  It’s worthwhile watching this spellbinding play for its sad insights into the quality of relationships between women.  So much warmth, so much feeling, and yet so little clarity as to what is true and what isn’t, who is sincere and who isn’t, and what you can count on and what you can’t. 

And the loneliness is acute to the point of unbearable, behind all the affectionate smiles and squeezed hands.  “Let’s promise to be each other’s beacon of light,” says Denise to her sister Anna, as they plan to have lunch so that Anna can meet her nephew (for the first time).  Will it ever happen?  Who knows….

Photos: Landmark Productions

The Approach, by Mark O’Rowe, presented by Landmark Productions and Project Arts center (Ireland) in partnership with Theater for a New Audience, now streaming though January 31 on demand. This is a Landmark Production presented by St. Ann’s Warehouse. Available at: www.stannswarehouse.org/show-the-approach