In 1850, it took about three months to travel to Australia from Ireland. Jaki McCarrick’s heartfelt, doubtful “Belfast Girls,” at the Irish Repertory Theater, sets sail with the Inchinnan, bedding down in a windowless cabin with several characters as part of a real-life resettlement plan then known as the Earl Grey Scheme or the Famine Orphan Scheme.
A plan to relieve the pressure on Irish workhouses while supplying Australia with workers (and not incidentally, wives), the scheme promised to deliver skilled young women of good moral character. In two years, over 4,000 teenage girls and young women were transported. Few of these women were skilled, some weren’t young, some weren’t orphans and some were prostitutes, which makes the claims to good character somewhat dubious, at least by 19th-century standards. But these young women were willing, with the promise of food and clothing — shifts, stockings, petticoats, two gowns — inducement enough for them to make the crossing and then to face the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic prejudice that greeted them on arrival.
McCarrick’s play, directed with sympathy and occasional silliness by Nicola Murphy, introduces us to five of these women: the tough Judith, a Belfast girl by way of Jamaica (Caroline Strange); the sly Sarah Jane (Sarah Street), a country girl; “Fat Hannah” (Mary Mallen); “Stupid Ellen” (Labhaoise Magee); and the bookish Molly (Aida Leventaki). Each has a secret, or several secrets, some more terrible than others, and in the way of plays like this, all will be revealed before the ship docks.
McCarrick does some adept character development and gives the actresses plenty to work with — too much, at times. And the performers are eager, with Mallen and Magee finding moments of nuance even in smaller roles. If Strange finds less texture, she’s a forceful performer and one to keep an eye on. Still the play’s first half, with its focus on circumstance and environment, tends more toward the novelistic than the theatrical. Only in the second act do the dynamics of character and dialogue drive the story, which briefly slides toward melodrama.
Like the 1970s and ’80s dramas of David Hare, Caryl Churchill and Howard Brenton, as well as McCarrick’s Irish counterpart, Brian Friel, “Belfast Girls” resembles a state of the nation play, which uses a historical moment to think through larger themes, here how a country treats its most oppressed and least enfranchised citizens.
While McCarrick has clearly researched the famine that preceded and encouraged the scheme, “Belfast Girls” only rarely emerges as a convincing portrait of the mid 19th-century. The characters, with their insistence on self-determination, feel too modern, and there are a few infelicities, like the idea that “The Communist Manifesto,” first translated into English toward the end of 1850, would circulate onboard. And some of the dialogue rings anachronistic, as when Judith scolds Sarah Jane for her lack of fellow feeling.
“Empathy it’s called,” Judith says. “That thing where ya break out of your own clannish mentality ta do somethin’ for someone else!”
But these are momentary annoyances. The greater problem is that Murphy’s production is overly literal, hewing to realism when the script seems to suggest something more abstract. This keeps the play small and overheated, even though the cabin itself — the functional set is by Chika Shimizu and lit with economy by Michael O’Connor — doesn’t feel especially claustrophobic. Until the final moments, when the women stand on deck and contemplate their future, “Belfast Girls” never quite manages to reach out from its world into ours, which is what makes a drama like this feel essential. For a shipbound play, it only rarely raises anchor.
Through June 26 at Irish Repertory Theater, Manhattan; irishrep.org. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.