by Carole Di Tosti . . . .

Historically, a scourge was a whip, or “cat-o-nine-tails” used to punish physically. In The Scourge, written and performed by Michelle Dooly Mahon, the implement used to torture takes on a greater significance since it is not physical. The punishment inflicted is emotional and psychological. The daughter in the play ends up scourging herself emotionally and psychically in order to establish her identity and autonomy from her mother.

Mahon’s solo play is being presented online at 2021 Origin 1st Irish Theatre Festival, a yearly play festival devoted to producing and presenting plays by contemporary Irish playwrights from around the world. This year the 2021 Origin 1st Irish Theatre Festival has gone virtual from January 11 through January 31, 2021 with a total of 20 events presenting Irish and Irish American artists. These presentations include pre-recorded theatrical productions, films, documentaries, and panels.

The Scourge is an adaptation of Mahon’s memoir Scourged about her beloved Mother, Siobhán who battled Alzheimer’s in a decade-long decline and withering into death. The Director of Wexford Arts Centre in Ireland, Elizabeth Whyte, commissioned the stage adaptation, The Scourge, which Mahon wrote and performed, and Ben Barnes directed.

Michelle Dooly Mahon

Following its debut at the Wexford Arts Centre, the production undertook a nationwide tour in 2019 and then opened as part of the 2020 Origins 1st Irish Theatre Festival at The Irish Repertory Theater in New York. Mahon was nominated for Best Playwright and Best Actor for her role as The Scourge. The production was also nominated for Best Design.

The version presented online this year is the one recorded and presented at the Wexford Arts Centre replete with audience reactions. As the title character, Mahon portrays the daughter, who as a child was the scourge of the family, a punisher who always managed to be a handful and get into trouble. As the scourge characterizes events which depict her particularly egregious and very funny actions with family, we become aware of the parallels she sketches chronicling her past and its integration with her family dynamic, where she elaborates on her mom and dad, their meeting, marriage and raising a family.

 During the course of the play’s arc, she shifts from present to the past, all the while engaging the audience in her story which is about gaining her own identity as she gradually says the long goodbye to her mom. The process for her is daunting as her mother gradually wanes. As a coping mechanism, she emotionally and psychically scourges herself with the pain of the endeavor, losing herself, becoming her mom to in effect keep her alive. In the last stages of the process she morphs. She separates from her mother and blossoms into her own being as she lays her mom to rest after the long goodbye is finished.

Mahon’s performance is sterling in its humor, its pathos and its glorious beauty as she emerges the butterfly from the cocoon of “scourgedom.. Sections of the middle could have been pared down and made more dynamic, for we are more taken with how the events impact the daughter as opposed to the myriad details about the mother. However, when the melding of the mother and daughter and their role reversal clarifies, the theme strengthens. And as painful and as poignant as it is, we are reminded that “to everything there is a season.” As the mother nurtured her “scourge,” the scourge must emblazon a path for herself, grow up, “confront the identification with her mother” and stop punishing herself, for she is indeed, beautiful and worthy of the beauty within and without.

Throughout, the music and songs are well placed and signify turning points. The set is minimalistic, with a closet loaded with items that Mahon selects to change her costumes not only for interest, but to solidify the shifts in the story and the twists and surprises that occur. Using child’s furniture and a doll to symbolize the emotional and mental state of her mom aging backwards was difficult for me to get used to initially. However, Mahon integrates the doll with caretaking, putting it to bed, sitting with it, etc., so that we understand the actions she took with her own mother in loving comfort.

The Scourge is a fascinating look at mother/daughter relationships, the complicated identity fusion and separation, and the difficulty of watching someone you adore, idolize, are one with, dissolve into the irrevocable, mortal finishing of Alzheimer’s.

Kudos to the creative and technical team who brought the production online for the 2021 Origin 1st Irish Theatre Festival. The Scourge is available for online viewing on Friday, January 29 at 8 pm. For tickets go to their website calendar.