The New Electric Ballroom at the Hedgerow Theater Review: Great Talent Working Against Their Strengths

Enda Walsh’s 2004 play, The New Electric Ballroom, opened at the Hedgerow Theater earlier this month. This play follows three sisters in a small Irish town as the two older sisters, Breda (Janis Dardaris) and Clara (Marcia Saunders), recount often-told stories of their youths to their younger sister, Ada (Marcie Bramucci). The play draws on an odd sense of repetition. At multiple moments, either Breda or Clara repeats a monologue the other has said earlier. Interestingly, Ada seems at first able to control the stories that her two sisters are telling her. She pushes them on details and even fills in certain lines where the storyteller freezes.

However, it becomes clear that the play is incredibly concerned with the repetition of stories and its effect on both the tellers and listeners. Instead of controlling her sisters’ narratives, Ada is, in fact, remembering them. She remembers these stories that were told to her over and over as she was growing up. The New Electric Ballroom shows the audience the day when these stories have finally become too much for Ada, and she decides to begin living for herself.

The lighting design is a standout aspect of this production. The slightly dull lighting of the cottage where the story takes place, the enchanting warm glow calling from outside the door, and the neon lights of the Electric Ballroom in Clara and Breda’s memories are captured perfectly on the Hedgerow’s stage. The set, however, fails to capture the stifling smallness that Walsh intends to depict in this little cottage. It instead feels vast and desolate. The set would feel smaller, perhaps if its vast room was effectively used by our actors, but Ada, Clara, and Breda’s actors consistently fail to do so. 

For most of the play, the acting feels incredibly stiff. Our sisters never quite feel like they are talking to each other. They occasionally talk at one another, but mostly, they monologue towards the audience. To some extent, this is clearly an intentional effect. These characters don’t live full lives. They go about the motions of their days, but they really only live in their pasts, fearful of any possible future. Yet, the actors struggle to depict people acting in this odd, unnatural way. Instead, they just seem like actors, acting oddly and unnaturally: they’re very still, very awkward with each other. In their words, they are often incredibly expressive, but they lack much interesting physicality on stage. Eventually, the narrative of the play allows our actors to warm up to each other and actually depict people who are living in a realistic sense, and they are correspondingly better actors when given this opportunity.

The sisters are repeatedly interrupted by the abrupt entrance of the fishmonger Patsy (Stephen Patrick Smith). While he is still forlorn about the past and scared of the future, he is incredibly expressive as opposed to the sisters. Always quick with a perfectly placed gag and always engaging the space and the sisters (as much as they will let him), his performance is a breath of fresh air. Unlike the subdued performances of Clara, Breda, and Ada, his lively portrayal clearly carries an element of intentionality. He also comes across as a fundamentally better actor. He brings enormous range, moving effortlessly between comic relief, a tragic character in his own right, and even a shockingly fun and well-performed song and dance sequence.

The New Electric Ballroom shows spectacular writing on the part of the playwright. Each speech is a masterful work of art in its own right, and together they try to convey a unique message about the comfort and danger of remaining stuck in one’s past and the terrifying nature of trying to move on. However, in this production, speeches are most of what the audience gets. The actors are not quite up to the task of depicting the incredibly unnatural lives of Walsh’s three sisters. Patsy’s spectacular portrayal helps, but ultimately his liveliness cannot pull the production together when the rest of the cast cannot quite work with him in these roles. This is a wonderful play produced by a clearly talented team, but the two cannot mesh together to do each other justice.

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