October 28, 2004

Playwright Hughes squeezes humor out of an Angela's Ashes situation

Geraldine Hughes' big, bright, Irish-blue eyes—whose radiance she embellishes in Belfast Blues, a play currently in its third weekend at the Mercury Theater—betray a gleam and a certain sense of trepidation amidst her anecdotal account of her childhood in war-torn Belfast of the 1970s and '80s.

The play—a one-person act in which Hughes assumes the role of all 24 characters—starts off deliberate and uneventful. It depicts Hughes' humble family beginnings in Belfast—complete with a comic scene involving a slow-to-respond father, Geraldine's frantic, pregnant mother. and an absent-minded family friend trying nearly in vain to cart her off to the hospital. Geraldine thus describes her birth, and the play quickly fast-forwards to the housing projects, where the real story takes off.

Hughes ruminated over her childhood in the projects during a conversation with me, trying to impress a sense of hope upon the tragedy that necessarily permeates poverty-stricken areas and poverty-ravaged children.

"I passed by Cabrini Green the other day and it literally reminds me of where I grew up—I really just can't believe I lived there," Hughes said. "If anything, I think that my story is one of hope. Unfortunately, I had to leave to move forward. We had no money so there was just no chance of moving."

So she moved herself. As the play depicts, after being discovered as a child by an American television producer—whose good-ol'-boy charm and matter-of-factness Hughes contrasts quite nicely with her intimidated and shy Irish disposition—she received a spot in an American production, which effectively launched her career.

The scenes leading up to the momentous phone call from the producer are some of the more amusing—and at the same time, triumphant—as we see Hughes go from audition to audition, only to be met with throngs of other blue-eyed Irish girls clamoring for the same part. The audition scenes culminate with Hughes' mother calmly and subtly informing her of her impending trip to America. Hughes spins toward the audience in elation, an Irish-tinged shout of "Yes!" piercing a silent pause, while a slide picture of the famous Hollywood sign flickers across the stage's backdrop. Her silhouette remains for a split second against the Hollywood greenery, and the stage slowly dims, taking us to less jubilant scenes.

Notable is the way Hughes typecasts her father into a particular category of Irish war sufferers, who are by no means casualties in the physical sense, but who simply run out of steam in the barrage of violence and sentiments of hopelessness.

"I think there are survivors and non-survivors in violent situations," Hughes said. "I think that when you have no job and can't get another one because you are mired in a situation of poverty—and when you are starting to lose your health—you reach a feeling of helplessness."

A flurry of emotion and an impassioned stream of touching profanity accompany the scene depicting her father's death—a fact that Hughes attributes to her perception that her father simply surrendered to the incessant onslaught of violence and hardship.

"I get angry at him in the play; he being part of the community of the oppressed that gave up when the world tells them they have no hope," she said. "My father is someone who is representative of one who is at war with himself. And I want people to recognize that I could have become like him."

Obviously she didn't, which is why we all have the opportunity to see her performance. My one complaint might be that Belfast Blues didn't premiere in Chicago, which would seem to be an appropriate choice city given its Irish heritage, machine politics, and general fascination with all things Irish. Admittedly, Chicago's famed Saint Patrick's Day has become less of a traditionally Irish festival and more of an excuse to saturate the Chicago River in an artificial emerald brilliance while swarms of high school kids parade in marching bands down Columbus Drive. But the point remains: Chicago's tradition is primarily Irish Catholic.

"You know, it's so interesting," Hughes said in response to a question along these lines. "I took this play back to Southern and Northern Ireland, and they sat in front of me, Protestant and Catholic alike, and watched the exact same play as I have put on here in Chicago. And when I was finished, 99 percent of them were prepared to stand and applaud it. They were astounded that someone—specifically a woman—had made a personal journey to chronicle her story."

What's good enough for the Irishman is good enough for the City of Broad Shoulders, right? Without hesitation, Hughes toyed with the idea that the proverbial City of Big Shoulders may have lent its ideologically scrutinizing eye to her piece. Hughes mentioned a few "incidents" to me.

"Some people have come and approached me, and they specifically expressed that they thought the play was bigoted—they were Protestant," she said. "And then others have come—elderly people—and handed out pamphlets against my play in the completely other religious direction."

No matter which side of the religious divide you might sit on, the play succeeds—if not for the content, then for the sheer talent that Hughes brings to the stage; if not for the emotionally wrenching portrayal of suffering, then for the humorous way that Hughes spins it; if not for a riveting historical account of dynamic nation, then for the dynamics of a relationship between a defeated father and an aspiring daughter. Hughes brings to the stage what we would all hope to gain from such an involved search for historical and personal clarity.