There’s lots you can find out about a person through their saliva. Their parentage, their physical attributes, their allergies. Their lore. And, with some context, their trauma.
Spit by Noelle Brown starts with a single vial of the stuff, and what follows is a painful reckoning on both personal and national levels. Alannah (Fiona Mongillo) wants to find her birth mother. Nicole (Siobhan O’Malley) and Jessica (Seána O’Hanlon) are reeling from the death of their own. A horrible family secret lingers in the Irish air, heavy and sad.
Somewhere in contemporary Ireland these three women come to terms with the atrocities inflicted upon young, pregnant women by the Catholic Church, learning together the ramifications of Irish mother and baby homes. Unwed Irish women were forced to carry babies to term and then often had those babies taken from them, whisked away to adoptive families or group homes. Alannah becomes a mouthpiece for an evident wealth of research by Brown — in her voice we learn over 100,000 women went through these homes, and records of their time spent there were often destroyed or otherwise tampered with. It’s a grim history of abuse and unchecked power: the echoes of Canadian residential schools peal loudly.
The trio of women navigating Brown’s text onstage are uniformly strong. Mongillo’s Alannah is just right, curious and sad, and O’Malley and O’Hanlon are a completely believable pair of bickering sisters. Seana McKenna’s direction (she’s directed quite a bit in addition to her expansive acting career) is nicely understated, using the spare Falstaff Family Centre classroom space efficiently and highlighting the talents of set and costume designer Bonnie Deakin and lighting and sound designer Stephen Degenstein. Two couches and a podium more than suggest Jessica and Nicole’s shabby apartment, and lighting effectively punctuates moments of high drama.
The structure of Brown’s text brings an appreciated straightforwardness to the history at hand. It’s a simple, sad story of three sisters wading through a trough of Irish shame (it’s worth pointing out all three actors’ Irish accents are very strong). I certainly didn’t know about the sprawling legacy of Irish mother and baby homes prior to this show, and have to imagine some others didn’t either. Though the script is peppered with a few more numerical statistics than I’d prefer — at times they feel just a touch inorganic — the story never feels inaccessible to a Canadian audience or playing space.
Stratford’s Here for Now has put on some damn good work this summer (artistic director Mongillo in particular has shone in both Girls & Boys and Spit), and it’s worth checking the troupe out if you find yourself with an evening to spare at a certain Shakespeare festival. The work, spare though it may be, is rigorous, challenging, and of extremely high calibre. Spit, in all its familial drama, is an excellent introduction to a history which painfully mirrors Canada’s: it’s strong, strong work.
Spit ran at Here for Now theatre company in Stratford, ON. You can check out the rest of their season here.