You know those one-minute recipe videos that have been popping up a lot on various social media platforms? The ones that are basically a bowl and a pair of disembodied hands, sped-up, shot from above, and make preparing the dish in question look a) easy, and b) fun? While sitting in the theater watching Honor Molloy’s new play Crackskull Row, in a Kira Simring-directed production by the cell, I found myself wondering what that process would look like (hypothetically) if applied to theater-making, this show in particular lending itself well to the approach due to its rather eclectic ingredients.
Probably it wouldn’t be prepared in a bowl – instead, we’d be looking at a squalid couch, housed by three walls of a falling-apart set. Insert the following: A first-person narrator, an unhealthy relationship between a son and mother, an abusive and drunken husband, a fireplace from which characters appear, an empty fiddle case, blood in the wash water, quite a lot of dialogue about shoes and feet, an old woman, the same woman when she’s younger, a gas boy (the kind that comes to your house to work on your electrics and plumbing) who might be a fantasy, a heavy dose of memory-tinged and imagery-based speech, a sword, a penchant for mixing the mythical with mystical, a pram, a tin of moldy biscuits, and stir firmly for 80 minutes.
When broken down into its isolated components, Crackskull Row seems as though it would have a good chance of being – at the very least – compelling, and it doesn’t totally disappoint. The acting is sturdy throughout, with a particularly strong performance from Gina Costigan, who seamlessly achieves the play’s doubling requirements by first playing the daughter of, and then in the scene immediately thereafter, the younger version of the mother around whom the play unfolds. The construction of the play as a whole, though (all those ingredients!), is surprising mostly in that it doesn’t provide much by way of surprises.
The play starts with a narrator named Rasher (Colin Lane), who has just gotten out of prison. He seems to be a rather dark and tortured individual, and also has the theatrical ability of providing a commentary on actions past. Then it’s on to the squalid room, with that couch-bound old woman (Terry Donnelly), wheedling, complaining, spinning nothing out of more nothing to her daughter, who has entered the scene via the fireplace. (This happens more than once, and it’s never really clear why, other than to indicate that we’re in a sort of fairy tale space rather than a naturalistic one.) Certain omens promise the presence and coming of something ominous this night, and then we flashback (33 years?) and now the daughter becomes the mother, and a young man (played with some playfulness by John Charles McLaughlin) enters – he is the younger version of Rasher. Also, he’s in love with his mother. In a not-so-okay way. And then it’s mostly back and forth within those three frames – the husband (played also by Colin Lane), classic bad man that he is, comes home, stirs up too much drunken trouble, and a “terrible event” occurs – the kind of terrible event that could put you away in prison for 30 years, leaving your mother and love interest to wither away until she’s naught but a shell on a couch – well, you get the picture.
The strangest choice the play makes is withholding the one scene that, to me anyway, had the most promise in terms of ready-made dramatic stakes – the one in which the son, now old, returns home to confront his mother. We do get it eventually, but it comes so late that it seems almost an afterthought to the action, and culminates in a final moment that feels unintentionally comic rather than dreadful.
Maybe that watch-the-mix video recipe example came to mind as a result of the rich imagery that emerges from the text (delivered with heavy but decipherable Irish accents throughout) – the images themselves, recalled by the characters, resonate the strongest and the longest, and provide a respite from the otherwise sordid affairs playing out on stage. Sure, the memories threaten to slow up the drama, but they’re beautifully written and realized. Makes you wish, much like the characters onstage, that you could just freeze the action and zoom into those moments, living in them forever, leaving the rest behind.