The Squirrel Plays is presented as part of Theatre 503’s Edinburgh Preview season. We’ve done a lot of talking about America this year, and under the direction of American Jessica Bickel-Barlow, Mia McCullough’s 2005 play adds a spark of sardonic fire to the fray.
A squirrel may seem small, sweet and harmless perched on the fence with its poofy tail but when one moves in, uninvited, to newlyweds Tom and Sarah’s new home Tom is not so keen. An exterminator is called but it is already too late. The damage and hysteria it has wreaked is threatening to tear not only Tom and Sarah’s matrimonial bliss to shreds, but the fragile caring façade of the neighborhood association, and the whole local community with it. If squirrels are a part of nature, is it ever ok to kill?
You may be wondering just why “Squirrel problems” might be so topical, but as the hysteria escalates, the metaphor swims to the surface. It is not just a cute, fluffy critter that the couple are weighing up “exterminating”, but something much closer to home.
The double meaning has been carefully crafted so that the ridiculousness of the entire situation is made darkly comic throughout. There is a delightfully scathing parody of the American constitution itself, cheekily sheathed in a neighbourhood vote. There are also painfully sad moments. Amy Reitsma captures Sarah’s heartbreak at hearing the squirrel’s heartbeat through the walls of her house with quietly devastating poignancy.
The appearance of black squirrels in the neighbourhood and the neighbours mixed reaction, show that McCollough is not afraid to combine dark humour with hard truths that really cut to the bone. Squirrels… is not cute and fluffy, whether or not the critters themselves might be.
Under the direction of Bickel-Barlow, the design transports to a hyperreal American suburb. A cluster of neat birdhouses painted in bright colours pair each neighbour to their own ‘nest’, inseparable from the trappings of all-American suburban life. It is a brightly coloured pastiche reminiscent of the white picket-fence world captured in Edward Scissorhands. The interior of the house is made up of the performers themselves, who in turn become a bed frame, dishwasher, dining table, support beam. In this suburban picture, there really is no escaping your neighbours.
‘Part of the Main’ are a female-led group, on a self-declared mission to increase the representation of women onstage, but that doesn’t make this a purely female tale. McCollough’s writing does not serve as a mouthpiece for any one gender, or one point of view, but offers up a broad and complex discussion to which there are no easy answers. Tom and Sarah’s marriage
and domestic life is pushed out of the frame somewhat in part 2, as current events in America, as well as in Ireland, are brought to the forefront of our minds in the thought-provoking discussions on responsibility and rights to life, that are staged.
Whether you’re a man or a woman, ‘squirrels’ are a part of life. As the exterminator wryly observes, “nature is persistent”. The Squirrel Plays makes clear that our care and responsibility for the little critters, as well as each other, is an issue that has never been more pertinent.