Broadway is deserted — blockbuster shows are failing in New York — and small plays in the Bay Area seem to have suffered. The Marin Theater Company postponed Misalliance because it features a plane crash. Otherwise, though, theater is doing all right: Big-name regional productions have opened to full houses, and the luckiest audiences will find catharsis in stories that have nothing to do with Manhattan. By the Bog of Cats is an Irish play with conscious Greek roots, about a “Traveller” woman who lapses into a Medea-like fugue of vengeful rage. It's written by Marina Carr, one of those talented young playwrights from Ireland. Holly Hunter stars in the San Jose Rep's production (which is a West Coast premiere), and her nervy performance at the end of a tough week introduced us all over again to feelings of terror and pity.
Travellers, or tinkers, in Ireland are like white Gypsies, desperately poor but musical people who migrate in wagon trains, live in camps, and speak a different language from the settled farmers and bourgeoisie. They are a distinct but fading race, unique to Ireland but possibly pre-Celtic; they will probably vanish before anyone figures them out. Hester Swane, in Bog, is a single mother who has crossed the traditional boundary between her Traveller camp and an Irish Midlands town. For 15 years she has fooled around with a farmer named Carthage Kilbride, and now Hester lives in a real house, where she raises their 7-year-old daughter, Josie. Hester is tolerated by the town but not respected: As with Hester Prynne, everyone knows she's a whore.
Hunter plays her with a beautiful, keening blend of raw humor and want. “As fer me tinker blood I'm proud of it!” she shouts when Carthage announces he wants to marry a rich woman called Caroline Cassidy. And: “Carthage Kilbride is mine, an' only mine!” she hollers at Caroline, whose father can give Carthage cattle and land. Bog is about Hester losing out, socially, because of her tinker blood, and about the wild maternal affection she feels for Josie. Hunter summons these feelings in every scene, and expresses them in speeches with an ardent witchy rage.
The Bog of Cats is a peat bog on the edge of town, where the Travellers have a semipermanent camp. Director Timothy Near doesn't even try to show the bog. Instead she frames her show in a stylized set by Joe Vanek: A square, clean, icy box serves as an all-purpose background, and a floating arch and a light pastel porch-and-steps, like something from a mall, evokes a Travellers' wagon. I suppose the contrast is on purpose, but to me the clean minimalism says “California haute cuisine” rather than “Irish Midlands.” It doesn't participate in the rest of the play.
However, Hunter is in good company onstage, so the set doesn't matter. Carol Mayo Jenkins plays a hilariously petty grandmother, Mrs. Kilbride, who helps care for Josie in order to raise her as a proper town-girl, instead of a Traveller. She teaches the girl to count money and brags about how much the Kilbrides have in the bank. Ten-year-old Jillian Lee Wheeler plays the girl with overflowing cuteness and a well-studied Irish accent: Her best scene has Josie imitating the grandmother (wickedly) in front of Hester. Josie brags about saving “17 million pounds” by having “boiled socks instead of tea. And snail tarts, and a great, big mug o' pee. Y'wouldn't get better in Buckingham Palace!” From a 10-year-old! Not bad.
Joan MacIntosh is also strong as the Catwoman, a blind prophetic hag who lives in a wagon and serves as a tinker-Teiresias. She warns Hester to leave town before something bad happens (a piece of advice that naturally goes unheeded). The Catwoman leans on a cane, smiles with broken teeth, and eats mice raw. She works best as comic relief. Gretchen Cleevely as Caroline and Gordon MacDonald as Carthage are both solid, but their characters are mostly one-note foils for Hester's nuanced, self-contradictory fugue. Bog builds to its tragic climax through two or three outrageous scenes, starting with Hester crashing the wedding banquet; and in the end this odd, admirable woman brings down her own world out of a longing for vengeance, and justice, that seems not so distant or strange.