The girl is 5, doing somersaults in a skirt, her little-kid underwear showing as she tumbles.
“It’s disgusting,” her scandalized grandfather huffs. “How is she supposed to be a child of Mary?”
The Virgin Mary, that is. If you grew up Roman Catholic, the phrase “child of Mary” might already be familiar. Likewise the notion of moral purity it connotes, ingrained early in the narrator of Eimear McBride’s formidable rush of a novel “A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing,” whose solo-show stage adaptation by Annie Ryan is getting a gorgeously lucid, intimate production at the Irish Repertory Theater.
Both the novel, published in the United States in 2014, and the stage version, first seen in New York in 2016, predate the rise of the #MeToo movement. But they reflect an anger that was building and that McBride was able to articulate in the speed-of-thought story of a girl, whose name we never learn: a child who draws strength from what she has been taught to believe is her badness, but is left unguarded against others’ actual evil.
Directed by Nicola Murphy on Irish Rep’s tiny second stage, Jenn Murray rides the current of the monologue like a river, navigating its rapids and eddies, and stretches of calm, with a deftness that easily brings the audience along. On a spare set by Chen-Wei Liao, abetted by Michael O’Connor’s lighting and underscored by Nathanael Brown’s subtle music and sound design, Murray slips in and out of a crowd of characters with near-total legibility.
The girl is in utero when the play begins, but sentient all the same, and already fond of her toddler big brother. The whole play is spoken to him, her most precious person, who, by the time she is born, is surgery- scarred, with branches of a tumor left in his brain.
Their mother, abandoned by her husband and frightened for her son, clings to religion. She might love her daughter. Mainly, she seems repelled by her.
As a small child reveling in naughtiness, the girl races into the rain to swear lavishly — “My bad words best collection,” she calls it — where no one else can hear. Part of the pain of the play is watching that exuberant defiance ground down by shaming rules that dictate permissible female behavior and blame those who, by their own choice or someone else’s, don’t comply.
She is 13 when her aunt and uncle come to visit. The others leave the house, and the uncle, stomach-lurchingly, seizes his chance. He goes to the girl’s room, charms her, kisses her. She thinks he wants more, but he protests: “I’m not that man.” He is, though, and he does. She is a child and he ought to be her protector. When sex hurts her, he says, “You’ll be fine.”
This isn’t true then or in the years that follow, as his predation works its warping damage and what feels to the girl like her own sexual empowerment morphs into egregious, long-term self-harm.
In college, she won’t speak the secret of her uncle’s abuse even to her best friend.
“What is there to say?” she asks. She’s learned her lessons well.
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing
Through Dec. 12 at the Irish Repertory Theater, Manhattan; irishrep.org. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.