Stephanie Hunt and Rudy Guerrero are excellent in Word for Word’s stage realization of Colm Tóibín’s short story “Silence.” (Courtesy Julie Schuchard)

Stephanie Hunt and Rudy Guerrero are excellent in Word for Word’s stage realization of Colm Tóibín’s short story “Silence.” (Courtesy Julie Schuchard)

Word for Word brings Irish writers’ tales to life

Do go to see Word for Word’s text-verbatim staging of two short stories by Irish-born writers Emma Donoghue and Colm Tóibín, but don’t expect anything like the Oscar-nominated films based on their novels (“Room” and “Brooklyn,” respectively).

In terms of time, place, characters and style, these two stories — taken from the authors’ collections and theatricalized with nary a word omitted or changed — differ greatly from those two movies, but what they share, with the films and with each other, is the authors’ deep empathy for their central characters.

Donoghue’s “Night Vision” imagines the childhood of real-life figure Frances Browne (1816-70), based on autobiographical sketches and writings. Known as the Blind Poetess of Donegal, Browne grew up in a large Irish family, pursuing education to eventually become a successful novelist in London.

Browne (a lilting performance by Rosie Hallett) narrates her own tale, with the rest of the skillful Word ensemble embodying other characters — Browne’s many siblings and her parents, schoolteacher, minister — as well as non-characters, most engagingly a variety of words that Browne evokes in her quest to understand the nuances of language without the benefit of sight.

But in the hands of director Becca Wolff, what should have been a sweet and simple story is too busy — too much furniture being moved around, too much shared narrative among the actors, too many characterizations. Still, Browne’s story is affecting.

More successful is the longer second piece, based on Tóibín’s “Silence,” directed by Jim Cave with attention to comedy as well as to emotional undertones. As in “Night Vision,” it’s set in the 19th century and tells of a real woman and real event: writer and Abbey Theatre cofounder (with William Butler Yeats) Lady Gregory (1852-1932), who had a tempestuous affair with poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt while married to the much older Sir William Gregory.

Tóibín digs into the inner life of the young woman, tracing her sexual awakening, her fear of being seen yet her longing to share her most secret self — a longing that results in a set of love sonnets published, ironically, under another’s name.

Stephanie Hunt beautifully captures all the subtleties — the pain, the yearning and the humor — in Tóibín’s writing. She’s well supported by Rudy Guerrero, coolly seductive as her poet lover, hilarious as a Spanish guest; Richard Farrell’s stuffy Lord Gregory; and Hallett, Patricia Silver and Robert Sicular in a variety of roles.


REVIEW

Stories by Emma Donoghue and Colm Tóibín
Presented by Word for Word
Where: Z Below, 470 Florida St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes April 3
Tickets: $35 to $55
Contact: (866) 811-4111, www.zspace.org

Colm TóibínEmma DonoghueFrances BrowneLady GregoryNight VisionRosie HallettRudy GuerreroSilenceStephanie HuntWilfrid Scawen BluntWord for Word

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