“We will always be alone,” middle sister Breda (an anguished, and at times brutal, Anne Darragh) says in the opening monologue of Irish playwright Enda Walsh's 2008 play “The New Electric Ballroom.”
How right, or wrong, Breda is, we'll find out by the end of 90 minutes in this dark, poignant and slightly surreal comedy-drama.
Directed by the ever-insightful Barbara Damashek, it's receiving a beautifully crafted production at Shotgun Players — one that captures the delicate nuances in Walsh's script but never compromises his fierce, bleak vision and the characters' propensity for cruelty.
Stuck in a claustrophobically small seaside village (and, in set designer Erik Flatmo's astute rendering, a small house with corrugated tin walls), and stuck in the past as well, Walsh's three yearning sisters ritualistically, and masochistically, reenact a certain scene, which took place at the New Electric Ballroom when the two older ones, Breda and Clara (the latter depicted with childlike guilelessness by Trish Mulholland), were in their teens.
They expected, and hoped, it would be a turning point in their young lives.
“I'm at the edge of what it is to be a woman!” Clara rhapsodizes. “This is my time!” each one thought. They're in their 60s now.
After each tortured re-enactment, younger sister Ada (a luminous Beth Wilmurt) doles out cookies for solace. Ada pines to leave this grim place, but her sisters assure her that safety and security exist only within these walls.
The gossipy and lonely local fishmonger, Patsy (played with comical, and affecting, intensity by Kevin Clarke), appears regularly with trays of fish. Overcome with existential woe, he imagines the seagulls are laughing at him. “Would you ladies … have a good word to say to me?” he asks plaintively, before Ada shuts the door firmly in his face.
The longing for change — to escape the roles they seem destined to play, to find love — is palpable, and Damashek and the actors make the storytelling monologues, the characters' wistful flights of fanc y and foreboding. Patsy thinks the sea is receding, Clara thinks her body is shrinking and the heightened atmosphere work together seamlessly.
Reminiscent, in some ways, of Chekhov's “Three Sisters” as well as Genet's “The Maids,” Walsh's play has a distinctively Irish quality all its own: that wonderful Irish propensity for poetic images, wry humor and the gift of gab.
The New Electric Ballroom
Presented by Shotgun Players
Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. most Sundays; closes Oct. 5 Tickets: $20 to $30 Contact: (510) 841-6500, www.shotgunplayers.org