Playwright Marina Carr explores matters of life and death in 'Woman and Scarecrow'

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To characterize Marina Carr‘‍s work as dark, as many do, isn’‍t so much wrong as exasperating.

The woman deemed by The Guardian newspaper to have “emerged as Ireland's premier female playwright” does lean toward the dark side of subjects, particularly motherhood.

‘‍Woman and Scarecrow’‍

Where: Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, University of Pittsburgh campus, Oakland.

When: Thursday through Aug. 2. Previews: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Regular schedule: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; plus 7 p.m. July 15.

Tickets: $25-$48; or 412-561-6000.

“It’‍s easy to just say, ‘‍That’‍s the way she writes.‘‍ Having said that, I wouldn‘‍t dismiss there are dark elements in the work. That’‍s the way life is, dark and light,” she said on Sunday from Dublin, where she was preparing for her first trip to Pittsburgh. “Maybe it surprises people that a woman playwright would tackle what I suppose would have been the territory of men up until quite recently. But that‘‍s not just in plays. That’‍s in fiction and poetry. ... I think to just say, ‘‍oh that work is dark,’‍ I never know how to respond to that. It‘‍s a lack of full engagement in the work, I presume.”

Her play “Woman and Scarecrow,” which previews Thursday and Friday and opens Saturday at PICT Classic Theatre in Oakland Friday, comes in many shades. It paints a deathbed scene in which a Woman and her inner voice, a female presence called Scarecrow, are confronting the life that led to this moment. It has some dark moments, certainly, but not when compared with, say, “The Mai,” whose mythological title character destroys her young, and “Phaedra Backwards,” based on another mythological character who seduces her stepson, leading to his death.

Ms. Carr’‍s “Portia Coughlin,” which won the Susan Blackburn Smith Prize for women playwrights and was produced by PICT in 2001, is about a character who dreams of mutilating her young.

In contrast, the Woman in the production opening at PICT this week has eight children, and she is loath to be leaving them.

“You like to think you are covering new ground with each new work,” Ms. Carr said of the play that was first published in 2006. “It is different in a sense; there is the huge attachment to the children. There‘‍s also the amount she has to let go, in terms of love, in terms of her husband, in terms of pursuing that dream and the failure of that, and also revisiting little pivotal moments in her life and how they impact on who she has become.”

She has seen two productions of the play, in London and Dublin, that were interpreted differently. In London, the director leaned more toward realism; the Dublin production was more “symbolist and fantastical.”

Ms. Carr said that director Alan Stanford, who also heads up PICT, has in mind a blending of reality and fantasy. “I like where he’‍s going with it,” she said, eager to see both the theater in the Stephen Foster Memorial and the rehearsals with Nike Doukas as Woman, Karen Baum as Scarecrow, Sharon Brady as Auntie Ah and James FitzGerald as Him -- Woman’‍s philandering husband.  

The director was a well-known actor associated with Dublin‘‍s Gate Theatre before he settled in Pittsburgh.

“I’‍ve known Alan for years and he has an immense reputation here with his work in Dublin through the decades, so I‘‍ve met him through the years,” Ms. Carr said. “I’‍ve always wanted to work with him, and this is an opportunity.

“Marina has created a play that makes you laugh and cry in the same moment,” Mr. Stanford said of choosing the work in his first full season programming for PICT. “She stands squarely in that line of the greatest Irish playwrights and it is so gratifying to be able to acknowledge a woman writer in this way. She brings her particularly feminine slant to mining the depths of human emotion with wit and a classic Irish flair for language. She is quite brilliant, and we are truly honored to welcome her to Pittsburgh.”

Ms. Carr has several theories on what makes a writer -- male or female -- distinctly Irish. One is the Hiberno-English that is a combination of the Irish language spoken before the 12th-century Norman invasion roiling beneath the surface of standard British English. What we think of the lilt and lyricism of the language is a blessing and a curse, Ms. Carr said.

“I think we have to be careful about that, because you can wind up with purple passages that mean nothing,” she said.

“What we find much more of a challenge are ideas,” she continued. “Feeling and emotion would be the great strength [of Irish writers]. We‘‍re not great on debate ... strangely enough, you’‍d think with all the writers, you‘‍d think there’‍d be more. But it‘‍s not like the French, or the Spanish, or the South Americans or even the British. A lot of their theater tends to be around debate and polemic and to be quite political. Ours is very very different.”

She said she could never sit down to write a play about, for example, the banking crisis or Tianamen Square, like her British contemporaries. She admires those sorts of works as an avid theater-goer. It’‍s just not in her DNA as a writer.

Bringing Ms. Carr’‍s work back to PICT and bringing her here to Pittsburgh for a packed week of activity fits with the company‘‍s recent change in name -- adding “Classic” and dropping “Classical” -- Mr. Stanford said of the award-winning contemporary playwright. You could say that Ms. Carr’‍s work has a foot in both worlds, often taking inspiration from the classical.  

Perhaps that‘‍s why there’‍s that leaning toward familial relationships that tend toward the dark side, taking a cue from the ancient Greeks and Romans for whom theater and poetry were one and the same. Her wheelhouse is one of the many “valid strands” that have offshoots in theater today, Ms. Carr said.

“It‘‍s about accessing very deep feeling, passions, emotions -- that still resonates,” she said.

Note: PICT will hold a dinner in her honor Thursday night at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association in Oakland and she will attend opening night Saturday and the reception that follows, plus participate in the post-show talk-back with the cast and director after this Sunday’‍s matinee. The playwright also will conduct a free reading at 7 p.m. Sunday in the Henry Heymann Theatre, when her program will include selections from “Marble,” “By the Bog of Cats,” “The Cordelia Dream“ and “16 Possible Glimpses.” Details at






Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.

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