STAGE REVIEWMarch 21, 2003

Her tales of the Irish are comic, tragic

By Ellen Pfeifer
Globe Correspondent

The Irish are known for their storytelling tradition, so what would be more natural than to celebrate the season of St. Patrick at the Charlestown Working Theater where Sharon Kennedy tells tales from the old sod and the new world? In her fifth appearance at the theater (now handsomely refurbished), Kennedy is presenting a two-part program this weekend that testifies impressively to her expressive range.

For the first half, titled ''Comedy from the Irish Countryside,'' she takes on the male persona of an elderly ''seanachie,'' or village storyteller. Dressed in an old tweed jacket and a scally cap pulled over her long hair, she regales the audience with tales that -- all too frequently -- involve a characteristically Irish triangle: the bickering husband and wife and the village priest.

The stories are genuine archeological finds, which Kennedy collected on a 1987 trip to Ireland. The funniest is one in which a Protestant marries a Catholic girl and converts to his bride's religion. But old ways die hard, especially when the husband is confronted with the necessity of fasting on Fridays. As Kennedy puts it, ''the trill of it all was off in six days.''

In the second half of the program, ''Tragedy from Lawrence, Massachusetts,'' Kennedy takes us to the Pemberton Mill in that city on the terrible day of Jan. 10, 1860. More than 600 people were working in the four-story textile mill when it collapsed and caught fire; 88 died and many others were badly injured. Kennedy, who was commissioned to write the drama by the American Textile Museum and spent a month researching the disaster, creates a fictional family, the Callahans, to personify the mill workers. As most of the victims, the Callahans are recent Irish immigrants. An industrious and thrifty family, from the pregnant mother down to the youngest daughter, they had dreams of saving enough money for the father to open a butcher shop like the one back home. Although they survive the mill collapse, their dreams are irrevocably altered.

Kennedy's story recounts the events of the catastrophe from the first rumblings underfoot at ''13 minutes before 5'' to the conflagration that broke out several hours later when a lantern being used to illuminate rescue efforts accidentally ignited the collapsed debris. She takes us to horrific scenes at City Hall, which was pressed into service as a trauma center and charnel house. And she impersonates the brickmasons, engineers, and stockholders who testified later in an investigation of the calamity. Their buck-passing words sound eerily familiar in the wake of the recent Rhode Island nightclub fire.

With her long hair spilling over her shoulders and dressed in a simple calico frock, Kennedy is often deeply affecting. Occasionally, she chooses a tone of voice or a palette of expressions that doesn't quite match the dramatic moment. And occasionally she stumbles over a line -- not too surprising, considering that she has nearly two hours of material to hold in memory. However, the mill story is so compelling and Kennedy so vivid in her telling that the program is spellbinding.

This story ran on page D26 of the Boston Globe on 3/21/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.