Coburn Gray is highlighting the Wrongs

Maisie Greener reviews Dylan Coburn Gray’s latest production Absent the Wrong and its depiction of queerness, race and adoption in Ireland

With queerness, race, adoption and eviction all appearing in Absent the Wrong’s promotional material, I was slightly apprehensive that Dylan Coburn Gray and Once Off Productions’ collaboration would only skim over these serious subject matters. I expected that the play would emulate a whistle-stop tour of the social issues dominating Ireland’s contemporary conscience and conversation. However, aided by the play’s generous three hour running time, Veronica Coburn’s tactful directing manages to accommodate the depth and breadth of these aforementioned issues.

Echoing his 2014 Fringe feature Boys and Girls, Gray paints a picture of fluidity and interconnection between his characters, heightened by assigning multiple roles to each actor and a small cast size of ten. Through a sequence of vulnerable vignettes, he masterfully evidences the national epidemic of isolation, displacement and loss of identity induced by the Mother and Baby Homes of the 20th century. Gray expresses that this generational trauma impedes intimacy and growth and, by writing the play before the publishing of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, he anticipated the inevitable disappointment of the inquiry. Writing: “I wanted to mark the blow that it was to activists and survivors – the sense of betrayal, the confusion, the hurt,” Coburn Gray alleges that the fallout is far from over.

The opening monologue, powerfully delivered by Leah Minto, instantly dispelled any anxieties that I had entered the theatre with. Saturated by the subjunctives “would’ve,” “could’ve” and “might’ve,” the audience is immediately struck by the deprivation of opportunity and confiscation of agency endured by survivors and their children. Alice’s heartfelt attestation of these infringements almost de-rails her pragmatic proposal for a memorial, which is the monologue’s ostensible function. By distracting both the audience and herself, having to re-orientate the speech with “back to the memorial,” Alice underlines the inadequacy and insincerity of a physical memorial when sufficient legal amends and compensation have been denied. The monologue itself cannot even sustain the superficial suggestion.

Gray proceeds to overload the audience with dates and numbers via a ticket machine, representing the delay and dehumanisation that adoptees seeking answers experienced, and a digital clock which accentuates the length of time spent in limbo. Both the automation and prolongation are deeply upsetting. The stall of waiting-room style chairs located centre stage are Molly O’Cathain’s most effective set design choice, in my opinion. With the line leading to neither an office nor a courtroom, perhaps the chairs symbolise the never-ending condition of waiting, with no resolution in sight for the adoptees. Conversations between reporters, solicitors and the victims are configured to face the audience, perhaps signifying the futile nature of the meetings. In this way, the first act firmly establishes the attitude that most adoptees and mothers were met with when they sought answers. This hostility only accumulates in the second act.

Gray’s bold decision to parallel queerness and adoption pays off in the second act. In a recent piece for Gay Community News Ireland, he explains his comparison of the two upbringings, stating: “Queer people know it well – hard to invest in the Family quite so much when your welcome into it is recent, conditional, revocable.” The two marginalised experiences are depicted as adhering to the same general pattern: an alternation between false hope and doors being slammed in your face. Credit must be given to Coburn Gray for accomplishing this symmetry without belittling or disparaging the queer or adoptee communities.

The fragmented tri-partite structure of the play seems to mirror the characters’ disrupted and disturbed development, with O’Cathain’s intentionally loud and indiscreet backdrop changes perhaps paralleling the many unwelcome intrusions suffered by the adoptees. Unfortunately, I found the transition into the third act a little awkward and arbitrary. The refrain of “what ifs” almost borders on a theatrical rendition of “Sliding Doors,” although the graceful choreography executed by Caoimhe Coburn Gray deflects from the slightly excessive length.

Gray and Sheik Bah’s confinement to the bed subtly symbolises how their relationship is denied the opportunity to evolve past sex, which evokes the question: would they have stayed together if their situations were different? Would they have gone their separate ways but agreed to co-parent? Would Alice still have grown up not knowing her father? My frustration at not having these answers verified Coburn Gray’s efforts to remind the audience of all the ‘what could have been’s’ that are never afforded an opportunity to actualise.

While I’m not trying to suggest that theatre can provide justice and restitution, especially not for a tragedy of this scale, Absent the Wrong does nevertheless commendably memorialise seventy years of survivors’ stories and endeavours to recognise voices which have been silenced, ignored and insulted by orthodox and bureaucratic institutions. By offering sign language interpreted performances and hosting a post-show discussion with academics and actors, the Abbey Theatre and Absent the Wrong have facilitated and encouraged further discussion and acknowledgement of a tragedy which cannot be forgotten.