It's hard for a contemporary reader to fathom why indeed, it was probably hard for many non-Eire readers to fathom even then but when Edna O'Brien's debut novel, The Country Girls, came out in 1960, she was considered a disgrace to all of Ireland. Priests burned it in churchyards and denounced it from the pulpit. Her books soon to include two Country Girls sequels, as the original was a hit everywhere else were banned from the Emerald Isle as late as 1977.
Just what could have been so offending about a book now described in reference books as "comic and charming," in contrast to her more "somber and sophisticated" later works? Not a whole hell of a lot, by current standards. In The Country Girls, O'Brien's two young female protagonists drink, disrespect the clergy, use bad language, and flirt with men. Actually, only the naughty one commits most of these "sins." But even the "nice" one becomes dangerously attached to a married man. Painted as boozy, abusive, and unreliable, Irish manhood in general doesn't come off too well in the boisterous yet coolly told chronicle of these Girls. Which might be the real reason that it incited such public condemnation, notwithstanding all expressions of moral outrage.
In addition to her literary fiction (which got a whole lot more sexually frank in subsequent years), O'Brien has written screenplays and teleplays since the early 1960s, and stage scripts for many years as well. Lately she's developed a rather simpatico relationship with the Magic Theatre. Tir na nóg, a nearly-half-century-later theatrical adaptation of The Country Girls, is her third Magic premiere. It follows the rather dreadful hair-pulling lady fight over one husband in Triptych (recurrent focus on such male-companion neediness is why O'Brien is a major female author seldom embraced by feminist academics or critics) and the structurally conventional, enjoyably juicy imploding-family melodrama Family Butchers.
Tir na nóg is something else, "a play with song" (its initial title) that tries mixing music, dance, a source narrative boiled down to rapid-fire outline, and yea more elements into a meta-theatre experience. It doesn't entirely work, due more to the text than any failings in departing Magic artistic director Chris Smith's resourceful production. But it's still an arresting evening, with fine work from the largely multicast nine-member ensemble.
The "country girls" here are two authorial alter-ego halves. Kate (Allison Jean White) is the only child of a long-suffering mother (Cat Thompson) and drunken, abusive pa (Matt Foyer). Baba (Summer Serafin) is only child to the western village's wealthiest couple, a flame-haired bratty terror.
Once the two girls are later sent off to convent school, the bad girl predictably gets them both expelled. After intermission, they make a first stab at adult life in big-city Dublin: serious-minded Kate as a working student carrying on a fitful affair with ardent-yet-married-to-a-mental-case "Mr. Gentleman" (toweringly suave Robert Parsons); Baba as an aspiring vamp stealing thrills from her own less-discriminatingly-chosen cheating beaus.
The book isn't exactly a blur of incident. But in its first half O'Brien's adaptation too often feels like a careless cinematic downsizing of highlights into too-short scenes, glue-gunned together by variably vocalized song snippets.
After the break, however, Tir na nóg (which translates as "land of youth") slows down for several poignantly deep scenes, notably between Kate and her stern Austrian landlady (Darragh), as well as a couple of unsuitable suitors. Beautifully handled by Smith and his design collaborators, the play goes off-rails a bit when O'Brien imposes as ending a flashback-memory montage, with principal characters (including dead ones) drifting back onstage to speak prior best lines in echo! echo! echo! recollection. Yet there's a certain charm to ex-Riverdance choreographer Jean Butler's ensuing ensemble step-dance finale.
If the novel's Kate came off as a guileless blank slate passively dragged down again and again by Baba's misdeeds White fills out that character with impressive gravitas. Serafin is a marvel as the antsy-panted best friend who simply can't repress her disrespect for authority, or precocious aspirations as a va-voom mantrap.
Through March 23
Wed-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun, 2:30 and 7 p.m., $40-$75
Fort Mason Center, Marina and Buchanan, Bldg. D, third floor, SF