For reasons of his own, Jonathan Bank, the artistic director of the very useful Mint Theatre, seems determined to single-handedly deliver the playwright Teresa Deevy from oblivion to renewed prominence on the theatre scene.
Ms. Deevy is the Irish playwright who found great favor with the Abbey Theatre and its audiences in Dublin during the 1930s. She was born in Waterford, Ireland in 1894, the youngest of thirteen children. Her father died when she was two, and she formed a close bond with her mother. When Tess (as she was called) was thirteen she was felled by a mysterious illness which was finally diagnosed as Meniere’s. By the time she was twenty, it had left her totally deaf.
To practice lip reading, she went to the theatre often, in London, where she was sent to continue her studies. Remarkably, she found her calling — she would become a playwright, for she discovered she had a talent for understanding the vagaries of the human heart. She seemed to have a sixth sense about people and their inner thoughts — a gift perhaps nurtured and fed by her deafness. At 31, she finally began to submit playscripts to the Abbey, Ireland’s national theatre. Rejected at first, her work caught the eye of Lennox Robinson, the Managing Director, and he encouraged her to keep writing.
From 1930 to 1936 Deevy flourished and found fulfillment, even happiness, as she dedicated herself to her plays. She had the aid of her beloved sister Nell who became her interpreter and companion. Of the six plays of hers that the Abbey produced, Katie Roche was the most popular, and it followed Dublin with productions in London, and on tour with the Abbey players in the United States.
Mr. Bank has already mounted Wife to James Whelan and Temporal Powers, on both of which I’ve commented in the past. In his notes in the current Playbill, he tells us that he finds in “almost all of Ms. Deevy’s plays, a conflict between ambition and contentment, between striving and acceptance, pride and humility.”
In Katie Roche, we are introduced to a lively and attractive young lady, forced into servitude as housemaid to Amelia Gregg and her brother Stanislaus because she’d been born out of wedlock, her mother could not raise her, and she’d been adopted by a Mrs. Roche, from whom she received her name.
Katie is headstrong, self-confident, defiant, determined to make something of her life, but her options are so limited there is virtually no way for her to succeed. She’d never even known who her father might have been, and when she is told by a wandering soul she calls “Holy Reuben” she cries out “I am done with humble. I was meant to be proud!”
And there we have it. The conflict Mr. Bank talks about — a lowly servant who yearns to become someone she is not, someone who has control over her own life. When she is offered stability through marriage to Stanislaus Gregg, she is stunned, and confused. She has interest in a lad from town who is her own age, with whom she can laugh and enjoy herself.
Throughout the play, which in three acts covers a year, she vacillates and wavers and makes decisions that she ultimately discards. The play tells us that she is a woman who was destined to make all the choices that would make it impossible for her to ever achieve any happiness. Clearly Katie Roche is some imagined version of Teresa Deevy herself, and aspects of this intelligent and talented artist appear in many of her other characters as well.
Deevy is but one of many playwrights who have been confined to the dusty library shelf since their moments in the sun of success. The Mint has brought us Dawn Powell’s Walking Down Broadway, Rose Franken’s Soldier’s Wife, Allan Monkhouse’s Mary Broome (another play about a housemaid, but this one becomes part of the family), Arnold Bennett’s What the Public Wants, and so many others. On occasion he’ll toss in the odd anomaly like Martha Gellhorn’s and Virginia Cowles’ Love Goes to Press. Ms. Gellhorn was one of Ernest Hemingway’s wives, and a newspaper woman on her own. Another oddity was Hemingway’s only play, The Fifth Column, not a master work, but an interesting example of how a writer’s voice may be more effective in one medium than in another.
I’m less sanguine than Mr. Bank about Ms. Deevy’s relevance today. There’s no question she is a playwright. She has craft, a lovely use of language that is authentic and character-revealing. She can construct a scene beautifully. There is one in Katie Roche between Amelia Gregg and Frank Lawlor, both supporting characters, in which Lawlor proposes to Amelia. Both are middle aged and have remained single. It’s the only scene these two misbegotten lovers have together, and it’s a gem. Deevy is able to create interest in us for these characters, giving us enough subtext to make us want more.
But Katie herself, and her adversary Stan Gregg didn’t earn from me the same kind of concern. Katie provokes him, he is condescending to her. One would hope she would follow her heart but her understanding that that young man would never be able to help her rise from her station leaves her between the devil and the deep blue sea. Perhaps it’s Deevy’s intention to have Katie marry above her station, thus insuring a problematic life ahead. Personally, I’d have had more regard for her had she done what Ibsen’s Nora did — that is, know who she is, and give that front door a good slam as she faced a new life with her soul in tact.
I respect Mr. Bank and the Mint for bringing back the works of a woman of Deevy’s talents. But three of her plays in two seasons was for me a bit much. I’d rather he look into other works of our own playwrights, people like Rose Franken, Paul Osborn (there’s a beaut of an Osborn play that preceded Morning’s At Seven, a play called Tomorrow Is Monday that is well worth exhuming from its grave.) And there must be something in the vast works of Sidney Kingsley, Maxwell Anderson, Robert E. Sherwood, Elmer Rice, George Kelly, Sidney Howard, Lillian Hellman.
But I would see anything at the Mint. Clearly I don’t always agree with management on the choice of material. But the productions are always first rate, and the level of the acting is remarkable. In Katie Roche, again a company has been assembled that understands and can deliver the rhythms of Ms. Deevy’s speeches, can play with the style that this period piece requires.
I found the play “interesting”, but the production “superb.” One caveat. The play covers one year from August to August. Outside Amelia Gregg’s cottage, which is impeccably furnished and decorated, we see bits of the lovely garden filled with the most beautiful flowers. In August, in December and again in August, the same flowers, in the same condition. Wiltless, they appear to be made of the finest fabric, but they do remind us that this is all make believe. And that’s not good.
Katie Roche is onstage thru March 31, 2013 at The Mint Theatre, 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10036. Details and tickets
Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
- Richard Seff interviews Broadway luminaries:
- Carole Shelley
- Brian d’Arcy James
- Chita Rivera
- John Kander, With Complete Kander
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz: