Photo courtesy of Boston College Theatre Department / Facebook

'Learning How to Drown': A Mythical Musical for the Ages

As a nation of immigrants, the United States is a melting pot of histories supplanted by way of sea vessel. For what would Brooklyn be without the Italians, New Orleans without the French, and Boston without the Irish? Each culture brings with it a network of infinite myths, folklore, and fairytales: the Germans enjoy Hansel & Gretel, the English dream of Jack and the Beanstalk, and the French boast of Little Red Riding Hood. But how closely do we allow these bedtime stories to become a part of ourselves? Do we live by the magic of The Little Mermaid or the serendipity of Cinderella?

Learning How to Drown suggests that the stories we are told—however whimsical—play a bigger part in our lives than we may realize.

Presented by the Boston College Theatre Department and the Robsham Theater Arts Center, Learning How to Drown is showing in the Bonn Studio Theater from February 17-21. This newly developed musical is not the first work of Boston College alum, Patricia Noonan ’07, to be produced on the heights. A graduate of the Presidential Scholars Program, Noonan was a distinct presence at BC for much of her time here. Apart from her studies, which were concentrated in Theater Arts and English, Noonan also had two original plays produced in Robsham Theatre. She recently made her way back up the Mass Pike from her home in New York for a visit to her old stomping ground with the production of Learning How to Drown.

Learning How to Drown is the story of 3 generations of women all bound to one of Ireland’s oldest myths. The Selkies do not meet the imagined expectations of a quintessential Irish folktale: they are not short, bearded leprechauns guarding clovers with more than three leaves. Instead, the Selkies are seal people (yes, the animal that claps) who swim around the Aran Islands and circle the country’s coast, saving sailors and shipmen from drowning in the depths of the Celtic current. But every seven years they shed their skins and come ashore, which is where the story of the O’Connell women begins.

We find Emma O’Connell, the third generation of Selkie blood, situated in her small New York City apartment on the cusp of the worst hurricane to hit the eastern seaboard in years. Emma is declining her boyfriend’s marriage proposal, unable to commit due to the wanderlust of her Selkie blood. Trapped in the apartment by the impending storm, Emma rehashes the history of her family to the man she rejected. She weaves myth and reality to produce a greater understanding of the story that has dictated her entire life. Recounting the story with flashbacks and musical numbers, a great appreciation for Irish culture is present in Noonan’s writing, much to the delight of the strong Irish community at Boston College.

This multi-generational story speaks of tradition in a culture that believes Guinness goes with anything and green compliments every color. It tells of its legends, and it voices a decent brogue. Emma’s connection to the myth of the Selkies is not unlike the yearning for a Prince Charming or the natural skepticism regarding stepmothers. Grounded in each of us are the stories that defined our childhood. In adulthood, it is a matter of determining how we allow these tales to shape our lives, no matter seal person or full person.

Unabashed bandwagon bookreader, trying to reclaim my Irish roots one far-fetched story at a time.