Mai, despite her regal-sounding name, is a mundane school administrator: one of three Irish sisters who drink whiskey, wear the pantsuits and bandannas that were all the rage in the '70s, and spout pop philosophies from Cosmopolitan. Yet Mai is unique among the three: She has devoted her soul and identity, tragically, to an absent husband. Gone for years at a time -- then eventually returning with presents, but an inability to discern one of his daughters from the other -- Robert doesn't offer even the illusion of domestic bliss, yet Mai remains dedicated to him. If there are neat psychological underpinnings for Mai's self-imposed suffering -- a mediocre father, the early death of her mother, a too-keen sense of her family's karma -- playwright Marina Carr has little interest in exploring them. In her memory play The Mai, it's mythology, not psychology, that drives the characters to their sorrowful end. Specifically, it's the ominous legend of Owl Lake, which exerts a gravitational pull on tragic lovers. And as it happens, it's the location of Mai's elegant home, which has the hollow and sad feel of a broken music box. There, Mai is truly in her element: sitting at her window, gazing at the moon, forever waiting for Robert to return.
For all its lyricism, the play also boasts a depressing sense of inevitability -- no hope, few surprises, and a too-familiar fight scene between Mai and Robert, in which she rants about his infidelities and he accuses her of using her schoolmarm authoritarianism against him. Yet even if one isn't entirely keen on these rambling multigenerational Irish soap operas (which Dobama kicks out about once a season), The Mai does offer flashes of warmth, humor, and insight, and the performances are premium across the board.
Bernadette Clemens as Mai is a beautiful swan-like presence, presenting a haunted woman who has essentially surrendered her soul. Yet Clemens also provides a quiet strength that works itself into an almost rabid aggression in the scene where she and Robert finally tear each other apart.
Dorothy Silver turns in another brilliant performance as Mai's sharp-tongued, opium-smoking grandmother. At 100 years old, Grandma Fraochlan shows no signs of deterioration, except for a stooped walk; armed with her pipe and the oar she carries as a memory of her deceased husband, she seems indestructible. And the scene where the jaded Grandma and Mai's sister Becky smoke opium, while Grandma waxes poetic about Zanzibar, is one of the play's freshest.
Andrew May plays cellist and sometime composer Robert as a self-possessed, self-involved, somewhat depressive cad; the role is a waste of May's range and agility, yet he is effective. Tyler Postma is exceptionally strong as the unsentimental daughter Millie, the play's narrator and the family's record-keeper.
The Mai is a sad song well sung, with a script that engages rather than electrifies; but the smartly showcased acting talent is what makes it worth a look.