Comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin, as the apocryphal saying goes, and in Myra’s Story, a one-woman play coming to Elora Community Theatre, that’s one coin that won’t be going out of circulation any time soon.
The title character of Myra’s Story (a one-night-only benefit show for the Elora Centre for the Arts) is a destitute woman who spends her day drinking and begging for change in the streets of Dublin while recalling her colourful life. From such material, it might seem difficult to create a performance that is simultaneously “hilarious, harrowing and heartbreaking,” but actor Jennifer Cornish said the mix of emotions came naturally.
“The ability to laugh and kind of thumb your nose at life in the face of adversity is one of the great human courages,” said Cornish. “I think the ease of balance for this particular character, Myra, is that she never actually feels sorry for herself. It’s not a self-pity play, so it’s easy for the wry, Irish humour to come through.”
Cornish believes the humour and sadness of Myra’s story will resonate with audiences from all walks of life.“The desire for a crutch, and the seduction of a crutch in the face of adversity is not new or rare,” said Cornish of Myra’s alcoholism. “I think that strikes a chord in individuals, and also in families and friends. It’s a part of pretty much any culture on earth.”
Myra’s Story began life as Maire – A Woman of Derry, by Irish playwright Brian Foster. When it premiered in Northern Ireland, it lasted an impressive 138 performances. Cornish discovered the play in 2011, and her correspondence with Foster helped reveal unknown depths in the work.
“I learned a lot of its history, and why he wrote it, right down to why he chose this character,” said Cornish. “She is based on a real character – in fact, she is an amalgam of a number of different homeless people in Derry, in Northern Ireland, that Brian Foster grew up near.”
As her day goes on, Myra recalls a host of these denizens in her past, with names like Tina the Tap, Big Birdie, Jimmy the Tadpole, and others. Cornish inhabits all these roles, and finds the one-woman show to be the most challenging form of theatre.
“It’s one of the greatest challenges – you’re out there by yourself,” said Cornish. “There’s no one to save you, no one to give you extra energy, or help pick it up if you’re failing – you’re out there all on your own in front of the audience. It’s very powerful, and it’s also quite daunting.”
Indeed, Cornish spends so much time by herself in character that the performance becomes uniquely introspective, as she uses her own life experiences to bring Myra to life.
“That’s the only way to translate any character in a way that is going to ring emotionally true for the audience – it has to come through our own emotional processors. There are certainly a lot of things in Myra’s life that don’t directly connect with me, but as humans, we can use our own experiences of being up and down, and high and low.”
This empathy for the character is one way Cornish hopes to connect with the audience. “What I think is worth sharing with a much wider audience is the humanity of storytelling. I think the understanding of a human life, the story of a human life, brings us together as humans, and makes us aware of ourselves and our neighbours in new ways.”
The gala performance of Myra’s Story will be on February 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Elora Centre for the Arts, 75 Melville St. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at the centre, or by calling 519-496-6481. The performance will be a fundraiser for the ECFTA and Elora Community Theatre, with all proceeds going to these institutions. A wine and cheese reception will follow the performance.