Irish Eyes

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Abbie Spallen's "tough but tender" Pumpgirl is steeped in the tradition of richly detailed Irish storytelling.
Geraldine Hughes in Pumpgirl
Geraldine Hughes in Pumpgirl Photo by Joan Marcus


She has a name — Sandra — but nobody knows it or uses it. She does not use it herself. To herself and others she's just "the pumpgirl," a young person of arguable gender who works at the run-down local petrol station and, in the words of one of Hammy's needling barmates, "walks like John Wayne and looks like his horse."

Hammy? He's the stock-car racer who commits sex with the pumpgirl from time to time, there on the front seat, and then goes home to his wife and three kids. Meanwhile his wife, Sinead, a woman of long-repressed imagination, has been lit up sexually, for the first time in years, by another of Hammy's circle — a crass, two-bit jailbird whose nickname, thanks to cinema, is Shawshank.

None of the above conveys the intermingled stoicism and lyricism of an adventurous new voice in theatre, that of actress-turned-playwright Abbie Spallen, whose Pumpgirl, discovered a year and a half ago by the tiny Bush Theatre in London, is now in its American premiere under Carolyn Cantor's direction as a Manhattan Theatre Club presentation at City Center Stage II (through Jan. 13).

The telephone from New York reaches playwright Spallen neither in Ireland nor Northern Ireland nor London but on brief vacation to Catalonia, "a very proud area" just like the Newry, County Armagh — "the British army called it Bandit Country" — where she was born 39 years ago and Pumpgirl takes place. That's a nice, tough play of yours, I tell her. "Yeah, tough but tender," she says. What ignited it was when, some years ago, she was driving back to Dublin with a friend and stopped at a petrol station. "This girl came out to fill up the car. I said, 'There's one of these girls in every town. I'd like to write about her.' I'm interested in characters that usually slip through and don't get a voice; someone who can go through something and not have the resources the rest of us do."

This is Abbie Spallen's second full-length play, the first being Abeyance — "about four ghosts in a house in Belfast" — done at Garry Hynes' Druid Theatre, in Galway, three years ago. "I try to do something different every time I write. I've been an actress 15 years, and kind of squeezed in the writing. Now I've put the acting aside; it's kind of naturally gone aside, if you know what I mean."

Pumpgirl consists of three interlocking monologues — by Hammy, by Sinead and by Pumpgirl herself (in New York, actors Paul Sparks, Geraldine Hughes and Hannah Cabell) — "because there wasn't any other way to do it."

Like many another Irish playwright, she feels "very ignored" in Ireland; like many another before her, she had to go to London, where the 70-seat Bush Theatre, which receives 1,500 scripts a year, picked hers out — "I owe them everything" — as the one to do last year. That's what, even in Newry, is called beating the odds.

Geraldine Hughes, Hannah Cabell and Paul Sparks in Abbie Spallen's <i>Pumpgirl</i>.
Geraldine Hughes, Hannah Cabell and Paul Sparks in Abbie Spallen's Pumpgirl. Photo by Joan Marcus
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