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Hell Hole: A Love Story

"limp melancholy and unconvincing anguish"

Audrey review: Saints alive? An adaptation of Jo Kadlecek's play eulogises and simplifies a remarkable life of contradiction and strife.

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Hell Hole: A Love Story

Date: 5 Mar 2021

Dorothy Day wasn’t just a pretty name.

She was one of New York’s high-profile female figures in the early 20th century: a journalist; a founder of a newspaper; an activist and anarchist who fought for equality and the end of poverty and was investigated by the FBI .

What has ensured (and embattled) her legacy most, however, is the radical and seemingly irreconcilable pairing of her conservative Catholic faith with her political activism. The New Yorker, in a piece published last year, succinctly summed up the dissonance: “[Day] opted in to what many of her friends regarded as the most regressive and patriarchal institution outside of the federal government.”

While many devout people found her politics unseemly, Pope Francis named her alongside Martin Luther King as a “great American” and 2020 saw a renewed push for her to become a saint.

Day wasn’t a born Catholic. She converted, and it’s this journey and turmoil that Hell Hole: A Love Story endeavours, with limp melancholy and unconvincing anguish, to tell.

With intermittent narration in Brooklyn drawl by the character of newspaper editor Mike Gold (played by Nicholas Papademetriou, also the production’s director), we encounter Day at the key junctures in her early life, which lead her out of the arms of her atheist lover, Forster Batterham, and into His.

Three church pews and three velvet drapes give structure to the shifting scenes; as does, faintly, as heard over the radio and in brief dialogue snatches, the trial and execution of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.

Played rather bloodlessly by Adele Querol, we first see Day arrested at a suffragette rally she was reporting on for Gold. In her cell is a bible, as suggestive as Chekhov’s gun. If we didn’t immediately recognise it, protest leader Lucy Burns helpfully asks, “Is that a bible?”

Cut to a scene of a thoroughly inebriated Day (once an infamous drinker) demanding her one-time lover and playwright Eugene O’Neill (Alex Bryant-Smith) recite again The Hound of Heaven. While this gripping poem really does make God sound like a jealous and abusive boyfriend, Day hears a call for the peace that comes with learning to stop running.

It is on Staten Island that Day submits to her pursuant God, finding Him through an apple-cheeked, cheerily interfering Irish nun Sister Aloysia (Alison Chambers), in the miracle birth of her daughter and, paradoxically, in her love for Batterham.

Why she adores him, God knows.

He is written as a selfish misanthrope, abandoning his partner for days at a time to sulk on his boat. He is interminably rude to the Sister, resentful of the Catholic island residents, and assumes he can decide what Day should do with her body when she tells him she’s pregnant. The narrator throws some forgiving charity his way, assuring us that he was quite a good father despite everything. But here, accentuated by Matt Abotomey’s oily performance, he largely embodies a paternalistic git.

Day herself is only marginally sympathetic.

Aside from that opening scene of her arrest, she is almost entirely removed from the social issues she cared so much about. While she makes plenty of sweeping pronouncements about social ills, we see her mainly at leisure with her beaus and her avuncular boss, in dive bars and on beaches, or alone in troubled contemplation on the sands. If you didn’t know anything about her – and frankly, before this week, I didn’t – you wouldn’t think she was a particularly remarkable woman.

Which of course, she was.

The narrator tells us early that her memoir, The Long Loneliness (which he carries always under his arm) omits a lot which was inconvenient to Day. It’s telling what this adaptation of Jo Kadlecek’s original play chooses to omit, too. While Day’s book doesn’t mention that she had an abortion, for instance, the play doesn’t mention she was opposed to abortion – and social security, and birth control.

I’m a non-believer. And yet while I am untroubled by the torturous, lifelong throes that come with maintaining a relationship with an Almighty who permits such monstrous suffering in this world, it is a struggle which moves and absorbs me. The contradictions of Day’s religious and political beliefs compounded her struggle, as well as her alienation in society: a would-be icon of her time disowned by the right and the left.

Hell Hole, an origin story with a tendency to eulogise and oversimplify Day’s first shattering sacrifice before God, only wanly captures this strife.

Chippen Street Theatre’s dour, low-ceilinged space doesn’t help either.

Something about this play, at this moment in history, also seems incredibly white. Or perhaps I was just still reacting to the line on the Joining the Dots Theatre Company website page. Apropos of nothing, absolutely nothing: “Without doubt, as a constant advocate for the oppressed, [Day] would have been the first in line to march at the Black Lives Matter protests.”

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