The Woolgatherer

Blue Moon Theatre Co presents 'The Woolgatherer' by William Mastrosimone. Photo: Anita Kulon

Blue Moon Theatre Co presents 'The Woolgatherer' by William Mastrosimone. Photo: Anita Kulon

“You love something that ain't there and then you start hating what is there, and that’s hell.” So says the truck-driving Cliff, one of the irreparably broken characters of The Woolgatherer. While a good description of hell, Cliff’s sentiments also describe a painful inevitability seeded into the sudden bloom of romance: seeing the target of your idealised affections revealed, by the slow creep of familiarity, to be as emotionally crippled and tormented as you are. 

Both Cliff and Rose, the protagonists of William Mastrosimone’s raw two-hander, start off the play effectively banished from the possibility of making any kind of romantic connection, even one that invites the promised degradation of a self-perpetuated illusion. Both are ‘woolgatherers’, prone to idle fantasies as a means of inoculating themselves against the painful realities of their rather gritty existences, though Rose’s woolgathering does take on a more literal meaning as the play progresses.

The impulsive Cliff (Michael Hough) is stranded in Philadelphia when his truck breaks down. Looking for a brief evening of companionship, and a respite from the solitary life he leads, he befriends the reclusive Rose (Sinéad O’Riordan) who leads him back to her dilapidated apartment. Fitted with boarded-up windows, Rose’s one-room apartment is the site of a desperate suicide that, after seeing her anxious attempts to avoid reality, suggests that this may soon be Rose’s fate as well. In her search for some kind of tenderness, Rose, like Tennessee William’s Blanche, depends upon the kindness of strangers. The question is whether or not Cliff, whose erratic behaviour and vicious sense of humour hold the potential for violence, will prove to be Rose’s saviour.

Photo: Anita KulonMastrosimone’s script strongly suggests Cliff and Rose’s budding relationship should be balanced on a razor’s edge, where tender passion can devolve into violent confrontation at any moment. Whether or not Cliff will take advantage of Rose’s mental and emotional instability should serve as the immediate dramatic question: we’re compelled to hope that Cliff’s advances will prove to be genuine attempts to connect with Rose in a meaningful way, if not to produce a happy ending then at least to offer a guarantee of Rose’s safety and mental well-being. One can’t help then but to root for the production’s two performers to find a genuine connection on stage that justifies the painful quest for fulfillment that Mastrosimone’s characters undergo. Hough is a winning performer, endearing and full of a vitality that brings an appropriate bombast and bluster to Cliff. O’Riordan’s Rose is the picture of vulnerability, at once world-weary and hopelessly naïve. She brings a nuanced emotionality to her characterization, never forced and always tempered with an ease of delivery, even when Rose’s mental anguish reaches a fevered pitch.

It becomes increasingly frustrating then, as the play unfolds, to see two talented performers unable to find the spark of passion the script demands. We know that Rose and Cliff are meant for some kind of collision, be it emotional or carnal or both — this is fairly obvious in Mastrosimone’s uneasy ‘boy meets girl’ set-up. But O’Riordan and Hough never seem to be genuinely trying to affect their partner on stage. Hough appears to be performing in a bubble, with his wisecracks and callous bon mots coming across as scattershot when they should be used as specific tactics to coerce, seduce or corner Rose. As a result, the spark that should be lit in the first act (and which is then meant to grow into a roaring flame in the second) is never convincingly ignited.

Generating that kind of chemistry on stage isn’t easy, of course. It takes a certain kind of alchemy in casting for an intuitive attraction between performers to be turned into a palpable element of production. But it’s necessary for a play where an underlying desire that threatens to completely possess the characters drives the action. Perhaps a stronger, more detailed approach by director David Byrne, one that really encouraged his actors to deal with the reality of each other, rather than just delivering the script without a genuine spontaneity, would have gone some way in generating the sparks that justify Rose and Cliff’s romance.

All in all, just enough has been done on all fronts to present the script to the audience ‘as is’ without risking the tantalising danger one reads between Mastrosimone’s lines. Becky Gardiner’s set and lighting are functional and effectively convey the garish poverty Rose has ensconced herself in, though the trembling of flats as doors are opened and slammed challenges its verisimilitude. The overall result is a production that hits the marks outlined by Mastrosimone’s script, but that fails to reach the heady heights that his lyrical dialogue and gritty romantic conceit aims for.

Jesse Weaver completed his doctoral thesis at University College Cork in 2011. His research focus was on the changing roles of the playwright in Irish theatre production from 1980 to 2010.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Woolgatherer by William Mastrosimone

1 - 13 April 2013

Produced by Blue Moon Theatre Company
In The New Theatre

Directed by Dave Byrne

Design: Becky Gardiner

With: Sinéad O'Riordan and Michael Hough