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Friday, March 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

"Burning Bridget Cleary": The witching hour in 19th-century Ireland

Seattle Times theater critic

So you think witch trials ended back in the 1700s? Does Seattle playwright Allison Gregory have a tale for you. ...

It concerns one Bridget Cleary, of Ballyvadlea, Ireland.

As Gregory's searing new docudrama "Burning Bridget Cleary" details, this feisty lass was 26 in 1895, when she took sick with influenza symptoms. But she didn't heal quickly, and her husband, Michael, fell prey to local superstition.

Terrified that evil "faeries" had taken possession of Bridget, Michael and others in the rural community performed one nasty exorcism on his wife. Which ended in her fiery death.

And by the way: The whole grim business was covered as avidly in the media back then as the Laci Peterson murder case was recently.

Vigorously staged in the round by Sheila Daniels at Capitol Hill Arts Center (CHAC), "Burning Bridget Cleary" is cobbled from news stories, court transcripts and laced with imagined encounters and ringingly poetic dialogue of Gregory's invention.

Fast-paced, time-scrambled and at times wearying, it shows how it takes a village to whip up a witch-burning.

And that many incendiary feelings (envy, sexual jealousy, religious fervor), ignited by a blowhard neighbor, can feed a bonfire of collective fear and craziness.

Theater review


"Burning Bridget Cleary" by Allison Gregory, Thursdays-Sundays through March 18 at Capitol Hill Arts Center, Seattle; $15 (800-838-3006 or www.capitolhillarts.com).

Gregory also creates a portrait of a marriage riven with insecurities. And a study of how "official" neglect (by a wishy-washy priest and a drunken country doctor) can fan mass hysteria.

In its world premiere at CHAC, the play is acted with white-hot intensity by an able cast that includes the fierce, fascinating Kate Wisniewski (as Bridget), Michael Patten (as Michael), and Charles Leggett and Darragh Kennan in several juicy character roles apiece. (The latter also supply some much-needed comic relief.)

The highly episodic production's fluidity, in a tiny staging space, is also a compliment to Daniels' supple work, and to that of Robert J. Aguilar. His shadow-and-spark lighting is eerie perfection.

What "Burning Bridget Cleary" needs now is streamlining. It's now so crammed with descriptive and factual material, and its time sequencing is so fractured, it can make your head spin. But there's a lyrical, tough-minded play in there, waiting for the refiner's fire.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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