Is The Veil firstly a ghost story? Hard to say, but it is appareled in those trappings, and some fine creepy moments are conjured, too. Is it historical metaphor? One may be led to believe so, when connections seem to be made between the troubled lives of a family of English landowners and their unseen, starving Irish tenants.
Is it a metaphysical dissertation on the numinous eclipse of the material and the spiritual? Or is it primarily a melodrama of longing, familial tissue and despondency in the Chekhovian vein? I assume that playwright Conor McPherson was aiming for all of these with The Veil, his first period piece, a moody, richly textured if ultimately unsatisfying experience receiving its U.S. premiere at the wonderful Quotidian Theatre in Bethesda.
The play, set on a failing estate in rural Ireland in 1822, promises so much at the outset: the opening scenes reveal that Madeleine Lambroke, the widowed lady of the house is preparing to marry off her daughter Hannah to English aristocracy to settle the family’s debts. The unhappy Hannah, gifted with an extra-sensate perception, hears voices in empty rooms: a child laughing, a man shouting. Visitors arrive—a defrocked minister and an opium-addicted charlatan—contracted to escort the bride-to-be to her new home but armed with an ulterior agenda.
As if that’s not a full-enough plate, the opening scenes hint at unrequited love, family secrets and the unconcluded business of the dead. The competing idea-streams play a tantalizing hide-and-seek, building and jostling one upon the other, coursing in tandem before drowning out each other’s melody and dissipating in a muddy swirl of ideas.
The play’s three-hour length is held aloft by Jack Sbarbori’s well-paced direction, the stirring performances from many Quotidian favorites and McPherson’s trademark poetry as dialogue and quirky characterizations. Disappointment only sets in at the play’s close, when you astutely realize that the rapt attention you tendered will not be sufficient. What exactly happened? Where have you been led? The questions posed at the play’s auspicious start are still questions. The story is regrettably, not advanced.
But until you reach that doleful realization, The Veil is all enjoyment, from the atmospheric scenic, lighting and sound design to McPherson’s storytelling to the excellent ensemble acting I’ve come to expect from Quotidian.
Steve LaRocque is a commanding presence in an enlivened performance as the Reverend Berkeley. A wonderfully typical McPherson creation, Berkeley is a darkly colored intrigue. Sbarbori and LaRocque keep the performance anchored where it could’ve easily broken from its moorings and swelled into a B-movie monster.
Closes August 17, 2014
Quotidian Theatre Company at
The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh Street
2 hours, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $30
Speaking of the cinema, the two scenes where Berkeley leads the living into communion with the supernatural are genuinely enthralling, building dramatic tension into something like a Hollywood crescendo, a testament to the quality of the acting and production work at Quotidian.
Chelsea Mayo befittingly evokes Hannah with both haughtiness and fragility, dismayed with a situation out of her control and fearful of the future. John Decker’s laudanum-hooked Audelle is another typically creepy McPherson creature, bathed in pathos. Michele Osherow is fine as the distressed Lady Madeleine and Michael Avolio and Stephenie Mumford take dexterous turns as the love-struck estate manager Fingal and the ancient housekeeper Mrs. Goulding.
The big ideas churning in the play’s DNA are compelling and entitled to the breath of life and audience recognition. It will be interesting to see if The Veil, which premiered in London in 2011, will ever resurface from McPherson’s hand in a retooled form.
Until then, distinction is due the modest playhouse on Walsh Street for arranging the U.S. premiere of The Veil right in our own Bethesda. Quotidian has now presented seven of Conor McPherson’s works, including three area premieres, a tremendous credit to the local theater scene.
The Veil by Conor McPherson. Directed by Jack Sbarbori. Featuring Michele Osherow, Chelsea Mayo, Jane Squier Bruns, Steve LaRocque, John Decker, Stephanie Mumford, Michael Avolio and Christine Alexander. Set/sound/props design: Jack Sbarbori. Lighting design: Don Slater. Costume design: Stephanie Mumford (women), Jack Sbarbori (men). Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.