Judi Dench is quite a dame. As one of Great Britain’s greatest gifts to theater, films, and television, she has portrayed most of Shakespeare’s heroines, from Juliet to Lady Macbeth, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Sally Bowles in Cabaret, and M in seven James Bond films. The list stretches from 1957 on.
Dame Judi as an actor presents a consistent image of luminous intelligence, dignity, and forthrightness. So it is a thought-provoking diversion to see her portraying an unsophisticated woman too meek to protest the cruelties meted out to her by an order of Catholic nuns.
The film is “Philomena,” a true story adapted from the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by Martin Sixsmith and directed by Stephen Frears. Steve Coogan, who plays the part of Sixsmith, wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope and actor Coogan is marvelous as the brusque atheist/journalist who, for the sake of a good “human interest” story, takes on the task of helping a poor Irish Catholic mother search for her long-lost son.
The son, conceived in a one-night dalliance, inadvertently condemns his young mother to a home run by nuns who believed these unwed girls were evil and undisciplined and warranted severe punishment. In fact, after their babies were born, the girls were required to work in the laundry as virtual slaves for four years to “repay” the nuns for having “taken them in.”
Moreover, the nuns ran an “adoption” business, selling the children to potential parents in America and elsewhere. Among the most poignant scenes in the film is the one in which the young Philomena watches her 3-year-old son, his face pressed against the rear window of a long black limousine, being driven away by a pair of strangers.
This same dreadful story of the punishment of “fallen” women was revealed in the film “The Magdalene Sisters” in 2002. That film dealt with four teenage girls who suffered through their four years in the “Magdalene laundries,” but the most shocking revelation was the fact that the laundries and their cruel, intimidating practices were not fully shut down until 1996.
Philomena Lee did not speak of her early life, however, until the day of her son’s 50th birthday. At that time she told her story to her daughter, who appealed to journalist Sixsmith to help her mother find her son.
Philomena, who had silently agonized over her lost son for 47 years, willingly joined Sixsmith wherever the search took them, including, eventually, to America.
It’s a lovely film, laced with good-natured humor and Philomena’s patience, fortitude, and, most of all, unshakable faith. Still a reverent Catholic, she accepted without recrimination the deceptions of the nuns who, even 50 years later, refused to help her in any way.
If there is anything missing in this well-told story, however, it is a sense of Philomena as a full-blown woman. She has a daughter. Was there a husband? What did she do with her life? It wouldn’t be necessary to elaborate; she could fill in a few details in conversation with Sixsmith or with her daughter. It might distract a bit from the constancy of her concerns about the fate of her son, but it would give her character a little larger context.
“Philomena” opened in two local theaters on Nov. 22, but it will be playing in theaters throughout Los Angeles within the next week.
A different kind of mother
In contrast to Philomena, the mother in playwright John Pollono’s “Lost Girls” is a foul-mouthed harridan, but then, so is her daughter.
The mother, Linda, played alternately by Ann Bronston and Peggy Dunne, berates her daughter with nearly every sentence. The daughter, Maggie (Jennifer Pollono), shouts obscenities and insults and tells her mother to “shut up!” periodically.
But then, Maggie is distraught by the fact that her daughter Erica (Anna Theoni DiGiovanni) has disappeared in the middle of a crushing New England snowstorm. Plus, Maggie’s car has been stolen.
To the rescue comes Lou (Joshua Bitton), Maggie’s ex-husband, with his second wife, Penny (Kirsten Kollender). Lou is an ex-cop and a recovering alcoholic who gets his police buddies to look for Erica.
Meanwhile, Erica has persuaded a school friend, Scooter (Jonathan Lipnicki), to drive her to Florida so she can rendezvous with her middle-aged boyfriend.
From there the plot unravels in all directions, but it does hold your attention. John Perrin Flynn directs this dysfunctional family group well, except for the accents, which come and go. The setting is supposed to be New Hampshire, but the exaggerated accents are from Boston. (As is someone’s reference to having lived in Somerville, which is a Boston suburb.)
Of note is David Mauer’s dual set, which morphs in seconds from Maggie’s living room to the seedy hotel room that Erica and Scooter have holed up in to wait out the storm. The Murphy bed comes out from behind a wall, other walls reverse, and even the pictures turn to become other pictures, and it’s all done by hand so quickly that it doesn’t disrupt the continuity of the action.
This world premiere is presented by Rogue Machine Theatre at Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., in Los Angeles, and as many Los Angeles theatergoers already know, almost any play presented by the celebrated Rogue Machine Theatre is well worth seeing.
“Lost Girls will run Saturdays at 5 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. through Dec. 16. For reservations, call (855) 585-5185.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.