Remembering Irish Women of the ’60s in Elvis’s Toenail

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Laurie Wendorf, Francesca Ferrara and McKerrin Kelly in "Elvis's Toenail." Photo courtesy of Sidewalk Studio Theatre.
Laurie Wendorf, Francesca Ferrara and McKerrin Kelly in “Elvis’s Toenail.” Photo courtesy of Sidewalk Studio Theatre.

One of the most frustrating things that women actors encounter is the number of plays that have brilliant parts — for men. Equally frustrating is the scarcity of plays where women drive the action — where they “act,” not “react”.

Growing up in Ireland, my world was peopled with powerful women. My father had nine sisters — intelligent, vibrant women, who owned houses, worked in the civil service, managed families and voiced their opinions with clarity and conviction. My mother and her sisters managed businesses in fashion. Women organized everything. What they decided was going to happen, happened. My mother raised four children. She owned and managed two drapery shops and a clothing factory. She was a powerhouse of enterprise and ingenuity. So were her sisters, her sisters-in-law, and many of her peers.

Fionnuala Kenny
Fionnuala Kenny

These were the women I wanted to see onstage. Where were the parts for women?

In the factory where my mother worked, and above which we lived, the women machinists sang and chatted and argued all day. They worshipped Elvis, sharing stories with the familiarity of sisters. If one went to the pictures (movies), the whole workroom heard the story next day. They would sing the hit parade, making up their own hilarious words. When I heard Elvis singing, “Are you lonesome tonight” in the “laughing” version, I realized that he did the same thing. When they worked late, they would send someone out for “a single”  (a bag of hot, crispy French fries). To this day, the smell of a vinegar-soaked potato chip brings me back to that world.

Their lives unfolded as I listened, mesmerized. It was another world. Not my boring world of nuns and school, teachers and homework.  This was a world of dances and dresses and boys and kisses, of sports coats and pop songs. I was entranced.

But, like all fairy tales, this world had a dark side.

Sometimes, a girl would vanish from the factory. Her pay packet would sit, unclaimed, her sewing machine idle. Inquiries would be met with blank stares. Silence fell. Nobody knew anything — the Irish “O’Merta.”  Heads were bowed, lips pursed, voices tighter and grimmer. I would catch only whispered words — “trouble” or  “the convent” or England,” followed by sighs and head shaking. Tears, sometimes. One of their own had “got caught”.

I would try making sense of the scraps I could hear, before a door shut, or someone said “Sssh.” Something bad could happen to a girl if she “went” with a boy. She could end up “expecting”. The boy could run away, leaving the girl disgraced. Even as a child I knew that for a pregnant, unmarried girl in Ireland in the ’60s, the situation was terrible. It was the ultimate scandal. It was unacceptable for an unmarried girl to be visibly pregnant. She was “flaunting her sin”. She could be shunned in the street, dismissed from her job.

Christine Quigless and Arielle Davidsohn
Christine Quigless and Arielle Davidsohn

The Church condemned the sin, and the state upheld the Church’s position. There was no social support for the unmarried mother. Often, a girl’s only recourse was to “The Convent” – a state-funded, religious-controlled mother and baby facility, where she could remain hidden until the birth. The child would then be put up for fostering or adoption. There was little question of keeping a child. The “sin” needed to be repented. Giving up your child was regarded as atonement for your “fall from grace.”  It showed your sorrow was sincere.

Until the publication of the Ryan report, I had only hearsay about what went on in Irish institutions, funded by the state, where the vulnerable had their rights stripped away by a combination of religious zealotry, legal incompetence and state indifference. The full horror of what went on was hidden, except from the unfortunate people who had direct experience. It was an open secret — known, but not acknowledged. I knew that something bad infected our lives from the voices and faces of the women as they whispered about these places. I heard their terror of living in the shadow of a punitive regime, where your rights could be stripped away for no reason other than that you had fallen prey to misfortune or to your own humanness.

When I sat down to write Elvis’s Toenail I wanted to re-create this world, and the women in it. When the wonderful cast of LA actors came together to breathe life into the play and transform this world into reality, it brought together the two most powerful influences of my life — Ireland and America.

I was born in Ireland. I live in America. I have written a play about Ireland. An American cast is performing it. Dreams can come true. And there are eight great parts for women.

Elvis’s Toenail, Sidewalk Studio Theatre, 4150 Riverside Dr., Burbank 91505. Opens Friday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm (Dark Thanksgiving weekend). Through Dec. 8. Tickets: $20.  www.brownpapertickets.com. 800-838-3006.

Fionnuala Kenny was born in Dublin. A graduate of University College Dublin, she joined the Abbey Theatre as an actor in 1968. She re-located to London in 1975 and became head of faculty in a multicultural community college. She was awarded a Master of Arts Degree from Sussex University in 1986.  In 1997, she re-located to Southern California to work with STOP-GAP, an interactive educational theater company. Elvis’s Toenail is her first play to be produced.

**All Elvis’s Toenail production photos by courtesy of Sidewalk Studio Theatre. 

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Fionnuala Kenny

Fionnuala Kenny