The New Electric Ballroom

At the Vortex, the siblings of Enda Walsh's play can't move past a night from 50 years ago

Lorella Loftus' Ada is made up by Jennifer Underwood's Breda (Photo by Bonnie Cullum)

"People are talkers," Breda postulates, her back to the audience. "You can't deny that. You could, but you'd be affirming what you're trying to argue against, and what would the point of that be?"

This idea permeates the world of the four characters in The New Electric Ballroom, by Irish playwright Enda Walsh. In the small fishing town where this play is set, the things people talk about seem to be a driving force in the action – or nonaction, as it turns out – of sisters Breda, Clara, and Ada. Breda and Clara, the eldest by a couple of decades, are stuck: stuck inside their dilapidated house, stuck in their tiny town, and stuck in the memory of one night almost 50 years ago. Youngest sister Ada is trapped, too – she's forced to care for her sisters and facilitate their retellings of that night at the New Electric, a night Ada wasn't even alive for but one that forever colored her sisters' treatments of one another and their views on love.

Now hardened old women, both Breda and Clara give their account of that formative night so many years ago, when they were on the precipice of womanhood, their young hearts brimming with possibilities of new love. Unfortunately, they both had their sights set on the same band member, and he later jilted them both for a flouncy Doris Day type, a rejection that both have carried with them since. Ada eventually has her time to speak, too, and it becomes clear that her sisters' perceptions of the world around them have stifled her completely.

The only visitor the women see is the aptly named Patsy, affably played by Andy Brown. Poor Patsy's a fishmonger and one who seems to know his place, lamenting that some people just aren't destined for much of anything, knowing that this is his role to fill. At first, the women don't take kindly to him, don't even allow him to enter their home for fear of disrupting their routine, but the play's conclusion shines some hope on him and Ada.

The ladies' backstories are presented in elaborate, flowing, stream-of-consciousness prose reminiscent of Beckett. An up-and-coming Irish great in his own right, Walsh let his words fly off the page and swirl overhead, with such a visceral and personal feel that it seems as though we've walked in on someone reading their diary aloud. The 90-minute production is comprised primarily of monologues, which each performer handles skillfully. As the once "bad girl" Breda, Jennifer Underwood gives a performance fiery and powerful; we can plainly see that Breda leads this brigade, and Underwood's treatment of her character's language makes it easy to visualize the allure of the New Electric. As middle sister Clara, Karen Jambon brings a welcome eccentricity to her role, making way for comic moments while also delivering a wry intensity. Finally, Lorella Loftus as Ada acts as well as she reacts, subtly showing her character's every feeling through her expressive eyes.

The New Electric Ballroom is a poignant elegy with much to say in a short amount of time. Renaissance Austin Theatre and director Kevin Yancy have assembled an excellent cast whose intuition and skills pay this eerily stirring piece its dues.

The New Electric Ballroom

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 512/478-5282
Through June 6
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.

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Renaissance Austin Theatre, Irish theatre, the Vortex, Lorella Loftus, Jennifer Underwood, Karen Jambon, Enda Walsh, Kevin Yancey

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