Irish actress and writer Karen Ardiff’s first play opens in the dark, with a crackly recording of an old song that illuminates the setting with more clarity than the scenes that follow it – men sing: “Search the ground for gold, gold, gold./ While the air is cold, cold, cold.”
Indoors, May silently cares for brain-damaged actress Frankie, America’s Irish Pride, meshing past and present, imagination and spoken reality into a murky fumbling in the gloom.
Skagway was surging with prospectors in the last years of the 19th century – a lawless city of men trying to make their fortune in the Alaskan gold fields on its fringes. But by the start of the play, Skagway is “over” – everyone’s leaving in boats with what little gold they’ve managed to scrape together, before winter sets in. She takes the women left behind as her focus; a miserable quartet that drifted in on a tide of decorative flotsam to entertain the miners, but will have to find a way back under their own steam.
T-Belle is desperate to go – played with style by a refreshingly vigorous Kathy Rose O’Brian, her frustration is palpable. But her mother May (Geraldine Alexander) is guarding faded Frankie like she’s a chrysalis about to hatch, clinging to the hope that she’ll rally enough to perform her famous Statue of Liberty dance one more time. There’s money involved; the dance is the only way to secure Frankie’s earnings from the slippery money man Soapy Smith, who’s invested them in a new theatre for Skagway. And Nellie the Pig is sniffing around for her share of the loot.
There’s a little more plot, a few twists and turns involving an Native Alaskan lover, a golden knife and a vast lace shroud – but these fanciful flourishes are made colourless inside the play’s vastly, brutally opaque structure. The women’s inner lives are explored in meditative, wallowing interludes that shows the influence of theatre company Shared Experience’s distinctively emotional style, but don’t really make sense of the unfeeling glamazon Frankie. She’s written as an icier Blanche DuBois, who is dependent on the kindness of audio voice-overs to convey her thoughts in elliptical monologues – Angeline Ball’s scant opportunities with which to engage the audience feels like a hole in the play’s heart.
The Skagway of 1898 is a genuinely fascinating setting, but there are only the softest notes of insight into the conflicts that make up its distinctive identity – Irish pride in 19th century America, the place for women in a gold-rush town, the fraught relationships between migrants and Native Alaskans, and the corrupting power of the gold that appears and vanishes like the Northern Lights. Instead, we’re left in an introspective gloom that sidesteps Frontierland kitsch without quite having the sense of direction to escape it.