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Three Aspects of Woman : 'The Triumph of Maeve' traces relationship of two Irish sisters and their traditionalist mother.

August 05, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes frequently about theater for The Times

STUDIO CITY — Ah, the power of three.

The Christian Trinity. The Three Kings. The three-headed serpents of mythology.

Now, meet the threesome of Constance, Eva and Lady Gore-Booth.

"I realize that they are the three aspects of woman," says playwright-actor Victoria Thompson of her new drama, "The Triumph of Maeve," playing at Theatre East.

A drama, incidentally, in three acts.

Thompson has fashioned that rare creation in American theater: a genuine history play, and one with an agenda, albeit an ever-changing one. "Maeve" traces the mercurial relationship, from 1899 to 1917, of Irish poet and pacifist Eva Gore-Booth, her sister Countess Constance Markiewicz (who helped spur the 1916 Irish Easter Rebellion and was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons) and their traditionalist mother, Lady Georgina Gore-Booth. It is a triangle that bursts the bonds of 19th-Century domestic tranquillity--as if the shuttered characters of Choderlos de Laclos had suddenly been dropped into the turmoil of Stendhal's "The Red and the Black."

The play's shifts between the drawing room of the Gore-Booth family's Irish estate of Lissadell and the tense, revolutionary atmosphere of Dublin recall Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace." Not surprisingly, Thompson's most recent theater work was a dramatization of letters exchanged between Tolstoy and his wife, Sonya, "and I began writing 'Triumph of Maeve' based on Constance's letters to Eva," she said.

Before that, though, Thompson had accidentally landed upon this fiery Irish family during a trip to Ireland with her husband, T.S. Kerrigan and their three children. Kerrigan ("a huge fan of Yeats") was searching for his family roots in County Sligo, and the locals urged them to visit Lissadell.

"Everyone in Ireland seems to know about the countess," says Thompson, sitting next to director-actor Elaine Welton Hill in a rehearsal room across from the theater's main stage. "It's as if she were still alive (she died in 1927), with people taking strong pro and con positions on her radical methods to gain independence from England. But because I've always been somewhat of a nonviolent pacifist myself, I felt close to Eva, who seemed pure and good and almost saintly."

The epistolary draft of the play didn't work, but it did begin a two-year process of rewrites, rehearsals and workshop readings, and as it went, Thompson says she felt closer to Constance, "as a woman of action."

Although the current production is modest, with period costumes and furniture but no set, Thompson and Hill don't hide the hope that a well-endowed theater will snatch it up for a larger production. When asked how many drafts she went through to get to the current edition, Thompson places her hand palm-side down in midair, about two feet above the floor: "The stack of paper is this high. The dead trees! Folks here started calling it 'The Sligo Cycle,' " after the Pulitzer-winning, seven-hour "The Kentucky Cycle."

Thompson, Hill and two fellow Theatre East actors (Eve Brenner as Lady Gore-Booth and George Clifton as Constance's husband Count Casimir) have been with the play since its first workshop birth.

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The one casting mishap, ironically, appears to have been a boon for "Maeve." Nan McNamara took over as Eva when Thompson's actor sister, Hilarie Thompson, departed. "We still need to talk about why she didn't want to play Eva," the playwright said. "We haven't spoken since Christmas.

"But as painful as our rift has been, it's shed a whole new light on sister-sister relationships for me, and it provided the catalyst for the drama. Before this, when we were in workshops, and Theatre East members sitting in would ask me what the play was about, I couldn't really answer them. Now, I know."

The Constance-Eva faceoff represents a kind of ongoing Shavian debate within the play, as the maturing feminists arrive at opposed positions for their shared goal of human liberation. They are more than women's suffragists; Thompson shows how Constance moved from being a dilettante painter to feminist agitator to political revolutionary, and how Eva evolved from private poet to active pacifist during World War I--an unpopular position among suffragists.

Lady Gore-Booth, meanwhile, sits on the sidelines, Yesterday's Woman wondering if the world is spinning out of control. "She has her say in the end, and it is a kind of liberation for her as well," Thompson says.

Tomorrow's Woman is represented by Constance's daughter, Maeve (played by Thompson's own daughter, Hilary Kerrigan), who is named for the ancient Irish Queen of Connacht and a matron saint of Irish feminism.

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