What inspired Bridget Cleary's husband, father, and neighborhood friends to anxiously force-feed her noxious potions, sprinkle her with piss, and torture her with a hot poker? Anger? Envy? Was it religious love, which gladly mutilates the body to save the soul? The mystery of Burning Bridget Cleary, by local playwright Allison Gregory, is not what happened, but why.
Cleary was a real-life Irishwoman who fell suddenly ill, freaking out her kith and kin, who became convinced that she was a fairy changeling and witch and burned her alive in 1895. (The same year Irishman Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for consorting with another kind of fairy.) But religion is only half the story—Cleary was opinionated and successful, envied by her neighbors, distrusted by the clergy, and suspected by her husband, an Irish nationalist, of having an affair with an Episcopalian. She also had an affinity for fairies at a time when Irish paganism was widespread but secret, pressed into private life by the vise grips of modernity and Christianity.
Gregory's play begins sluggishly, but by the second act, the tragedy charges harrowingly forward, switching between Cleary's cottage (filled with concerned and increasingly hysterical loved ones trying to "save" her with herbs and the piss-sprinkling ritual) and the tense manslaughter trial where each tells his side of the story. The nine-person cast ranges from competent to very good: Kate Wisniewski is a proud, intense, and defiant Bridget, and Charles Leggett, as the instigator/neighbor John Dunne, tells a riveting fireside tale of a hag-changeling (that ends, ironically, with his dramatically brandishing the same poker he later uses to torment his friend's wife).
But Burning's greatest strength is its haunting story—of the fatal storm of fairy lore, Christian fervor, Irish nationalism, and the small-town gossip and resentments that converged on Bridget Cleary and set her on fire.