Story: One actress portrays several women who were essentially imprisoned throughout their lives in what were known as the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. As Black Mirror Theatre describes in its news release, “Magdalene Laundries were institutions of confinement, often run by Catholic nuns, in which as many as 30,000 Irish women and girls were held in forced labor, some for most of their lives...Some are said to still be in operation today.”

Wikipedia notes that between 1765 and 1996 more than 30,000 women and girls who were deemed “fallen women” were confined to the Magdalene laundries, which served as asylums of sorts and were silently supported by the government. In 1993 a developer uncovered 155 corpses in a mass grave on land formerly owned by an order of Roman Catholic nuns.

Media revelations led to former Magdalene inmates coming forward to share their stories in the institutions, where they were confined to work without wages and subjected to sexual, emotional and physical abuse. After more than 200 years, atrocities committed in the Magdalene laundries were brought to light.

Highlights: St. Louis native and New York City resident Erin Layton recently brought her acclaimed one-woman show, Magdalen, to St. Louis. It was performed under the auspices of Black Mirror Theatre as one half of a two-part presentation about the Magdalene Laundries in tandem with another play titled Eclipsed.

Other Info: Layton is a masterful performer and storyteller. As such, she kept her audience mesmerized while telling the horrific tale of women imprisoned in the cruel and sadistic Magdalene laundries, where they literally scrubbed laundry day after day, with no compensation and with minimal communication with other inmates allowed.

Layton’s one-act work, which premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2012, has been performed at colleges and universities, festivals and theaters. It features a simple set with wash buckets, a clothes line and several sheets which Layton hangs on the line during her performance.

Her affecting drama alternates between the years 1998 and 1948, recounting the real-life horrors of confinement and also enacting them through a number of characters all portrayed by the actress. With a change of expression, a tilt of her head or a variety of accents she tells the harrowing tale of several women confined to the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in Dublin.

Julie Kline developed and directed the taut, poignant drama, which features a sound design by Janie Bullard including Gregorian chants, running water in the laundry itself and distant crowd noises, made all the more melancholy by the women’s confinement.

With it all, Layton depicts how a character such as the lusty, vibrant Rita is in constant rebellion, contrasting her with the quiet, compliant Child of Mary. Regardless, all of the women are treated with contempt by authoritarian characters such as Reverend Mother and Father Patrick, shut off from any contact with society for their “sins” of unwed motherhood, prostitution or just looking different.

I wasn’t able to see Eclipsed, the companion piece which was written in 1992 by Patricia Burke Logan, a former novice in one of the Magdalene Laundries whose “inability to effect change led her to leave the convent,” according to program notes.

Kudos to Black Mirror Theatre for presenting two dramas focused on the hellish history of these so-called ‘asylums’ run for a tidy profit for more than 200 years in Ireland.

Play: Magdalen

Company: Black Mirror Theatre

Venue: Kranzberg Black Box Theatre

Dates: Run concluded

Photos courtesy of Black Mirror Theatre

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