For much of the 20th century institutions run by various religious orders such as the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Good Shepherd housed and disciplined young women who had – possibly – transgressed society’s rules.
In New York, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd operated the Villa Loretto in Peekskill from 1928-1975. The enormous old school on a hill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But it was only after Peter McMullan’s 2002 film “The Magdalen Laundries” and an Irish national report was issued in 2014 that many members of the public began talking about the justice wreaked on the girls sent there. In Ireland, these were not just schools for “delinquents,” the girls worked, sometimes for life, scrubbing linens for commercial laundries without pay as “a penitence.”
In October at the Soho Playhouse on Vandam Street in Manhattan, Magdalen: The Play visited straight from acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe Theatre Festival. Playwright and actor Erin Layton starred in a moving solo performance that was as much about face, gesture, movement and sound, as about the script. Calling it a documentary play, Layton says “My goal, as a woman is to glorify the beauty and integrity of women and girls who were otherwise known to an entire modern European society as fallen, feeble-minded, whores, misfits, flirts, sluts.” Many Irish girls/women are still alive, and are fighting to gain some recognition for their years of unpaid labor and their often radically misguided sentencing to these state-sanctioned workhouses. With directing by Julie Kline, the actor has forged documentary materials into a powerful social commentary on attitudes towards female sexuality and gender roles.
Layton moves about in an abstracted stage set of sheets, miming the constant scrubbing as she portrays various characters drawn from her documentary research. The sounds of water punctuate the drama, a score of drips that resounded alternately triste and accusatory. Layton moves fluently from strict administrator Sister Superior to cringing new inmate.Some girls arrived bewildered and longed only to emulate the good sisters — until told that they would never qualify as a nun after their “sins.”
The knowledge of being seen as polluted and contaminated is as palpable as the dirt on the sheets in Layton’s performance. Others manifest the high spirits and resilience of teens who know the world is wrong and they are right, a confidence that often waned over the years of indeterminate “sentences” to the Magdalene laundries. Girls as young as nine were admitted, and there was a case in the official report of a woman who got out at 95. Scandals over the burials on the grounds were part of what provoked the Irish governmental investigation. In one scene, neighborhood boys taunt the girls and speculate about the spooky hidden lives behind the walls.
Embodying these stories, male, female, young, old, perpetrator and victim, Layton renders her body angular or soft, mutating marvelously from little girl to aging drudge. Her face is a malleable instrument, at times harsh, at other moments dancing with adolescent defiance.
The performance at SoHo Playhouse won a standing ovation as the lights dimmed. The issues raised by the laundries in Ireland and the homes for delinquent girls in the United States remain: why have we cracked down so fiercely on adolescent girls, and what do we imagine these days for a better vision of gender justice? Joni MItchell sang about the Magdalen Laundries in 1972, but clearly that wasn’t the end of it.
Photos: Above, Erin Layton plays a girl sentenced to scrub; middle, Villa Loretto housed girls in trouble in Peekskill from 1928-1975; and below, crushed beneath the eternally dirty sheets.