S group of inmates are forced to strip naked so they can undergo public humiliation. Held without trial and occasionally beaten severely by their minders, many are completely innocent of any crime. Worse yet, if you still cling to the apparent fallacy of women’s moral superiority over men, the abusers are female.
The locale, however, isn’t Abu Ghraib. It’s a Magdalen Asylum, one of the homes built by the Catholic Church (mostly in Ireland, although until 1932 there was one where San Francisco General Hospital now stands) to shelter and succor members of “this most wronged and helpless class of God’s creatures”: the Fallen Woman.
Originally the Magdalen Asylums were inhabited by prostitutes trying to find another form of employment; they were free to leave as they chose, and permitted to keep part of their wages from work done within the institution (usually laundry). But as the prostitute population fell, the nuns started filling beds with unwed mothers, the developmentally challenged, plain old “difficult” girls, and even young women whose only crime was being pretty and thus somehow more likely to “fall away” from the Church. According to various accounts from former “Magdalens,” the nuns came to realize over the next 150 years (shockingly, the last Magdalen Asylum closed just eight years ago) just how lucrative having a virtual slave population could be. It became harder and harder for the inmates to leave, and their wages were withheld. Backbreaking “penance” over washboards and presses was supposed to purify the inmates, many of them young and recently forced to give up their newborn infants, many of them brought to the asylums by angry parents. “Magdalens” were poorly fed, forbidden to form friendships, and kept from having any contact with or experience of the world outside the home.
Not many people knew of the Catholic Church’s great shame until playwright Patricia Burke Brogan (who as a novice nun had been assigned to one of the “Magdalen Laundries”) brought it to light in 1992 with her award-winning play Eclipsed. Later there would be a documentary (1998’s Sex in a Cold Climate, the source of many of the most disturbing charges) and an equally shocking feature film (Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, which raised quite a stir in Ireland), but all three productions do essentially the same thing: boil down the experience of an estimated thirty thousand women into four representative stories.
As grim as the truth is, Eclipsed is the easiest of the three to take. In Brogan’s story the women are allowed to talk to each other, laugh, sing, and receive mail from their families. Considering that the greatest criticism of the film came from ex-Magdalens who said it didn’t depict how harsh the homes really were, Brogan’s penitents seem to have it easy. Which makes a certain narrative sense, but makes the play seem lacking. Watching The Magdalene Sisters is like reading The Handmaid’s Tale; the dread builds inexorably as we realize that these women are trapped, probably for good. The play doesn’t achieve the same effect, what with all the long stretches of girlish camaraderie. While it was probably necessary from a formal standpoint, the choice means that the stakes never seem that high. It’s hard to understand why the inmates don’t just dogpile a nun, take her keys, and stroll on out. Watching the film, we see the guards, the beatings, the forced head-shavings, the young woman sent to a lunatic asylum essentially because she reveals that a priest has been using her sexually, and we get it. These women (other than, say, San Francisco’s real-life “inmate #101,” who shows up in an 1866 document as having “scaled the wall”) have had the fight beaten out of them.
There’s plenty of fight in the brooding Brigit (Lizzie Calogero) in the engaging yet somewhat overdone Wilde Irish production of Eclipsed, as well as the asthmatic Cathy (Allison Kenny), Elvis-crazy Mandy (Rica Anderson), and Sister Virginia (Lauren Bloom), Brogan’s stand-in. More resigned to their fate are Nellie-Nora (played by Sandra Schlechter), the naive Juliet (Erin Daly, who also doubles as the orphan Rosa), and Mother Victoria (Breda Courtney). In fact, there’s almost too much fight — it’s hard to say whether it’s a weakness in the script, or a directorial decision by Gemma Whelan — but this production starts out ratcheted so emotionally high that there isn’t much room for the actors to move. Whelan, who proved that she could do understated with her excellent production of Beckett’s Endgame, seems to be going in the other direction here to overwhelming effect. Perhaps because the stakes in the script weren’t high enough otherwise. So the histrionics are surprising from these actors, many of whom I’ve seen turn in subtly powerful, controlled performances; having so much screaming in a small, acoustically “live” space certainly makes the play intense, but that’s not necessary. The basic story is horrifying enough — and, like the Abu Ghraib photos, necessary to see.