The drama tent at Milwaukee Irish Fest is exactly what I love about small stage theatre. File through South Gate and there are people moving around from place to place. There’s bass, bluster and beer coming from every corner of the fest. Carve your way back far enough and there’s a quiet, little tent with row after row of folding chairs. With minimal set and costuming, a small drama plays out on a small stage for a small audience. So many people are going through the motions of enjoying a festival outside the tent. Inside there are just a few people making a connection. It’s a deeply personal art. At it’s best, it’s a closer connection with art that is deeply social.
Early yesterday afternoon, the drama tent at Irish Fest became home to Milwaukee Irish Arts’ Fred and Jane--a two-woman drama by Sebastian Barry. Margaret Casey and Lindsay Gagliano play a couple of nuns who have known each other for years. The format of Casey’s drama has the two nuns relating stories of friendship for the benefit of a documentary camera. On the stage under the tent, Barry and Gagliano’s rendering of the social drama feels very much like a warm social conversation between two actresses, to characters and an audience on a casual summer afternoon.
Barry’s story of two women with a very close emotional connection contrasts an older nun with a colleague young enough to be her daughter. Casey had a very relaxed presence onstage. The character had been through decades as an Irish nun. She talks of life in the country before becoming a nun. Gagliano plays a woman who had dreamed of life as an actress prior to becoming a nun. The relationship between the two isn’t quite a mother/daughter relationship. It was something a lot more difficult to define. Pleasant interaction gives way to something much more deep when the two characters began to discuss life away from each other as the younger nun was sent away to serve in England. Life away from each other turned out to be quite difficult in ways neither of them had expected. There’s a deep connection there.
It’s a very tender emotional tale of friendship, which is rarely focussed on with the kind of focus that Barry gives it here. The real challenge for any pair of actresses with a script like this is to accurately depict the kind of familiarity that the two characters are expressing. As inherently social creatures, we know when we see two people who have known each other for decades. It’s difficult to describe that distinct rapport over a decade of familiarity gives two people. We know it when we see it and we know when it isn’t actually there. As an audience, we know that actors playing characters rarely have the opportunity to work with other actors who they’ve got that kind of familiarity with. So as an audience, we’re doing at least some of the work of making two actors seem genuinely familiar with each other. To their credit, Gagliano and Casey manage a very convincing familiarity, respect and affection for each other that comes across quite well. It’s less than an hour under a tent in summer with a couple of actresses playing a couple of nuns. Amidst all of the lighthearted reverie and all the cultural trappings of Ireland, there’s an opportunity to make a brief emotional brush with something that feels very honest and genuine.
Fred and Jane is performed once more today (Aug. 20) at 3:30 p.m. at the Theatre Pavilion near South Gate on the Summerfest grounds. For more information, visit Milwaukee Irish Fest online.