It’s a wonder that we Irish haven’t gone extinct from all our slow courting. Beyond President Kennedy, there are no Irish Casanovas, and there are certainly none in John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar, where two Irish families address more traditional Irish concerns: (1) death (2) dead people (3) inheritance and (4) whiskey (there is an enormous barrel of Jameson’s out in the manger — enough to service an Irish town for a week, or a large city anywhere else for a year.)
But the real concern of Outside Mullingar — and it takes a while to reveal itself in Keegan Theatre’s meticulous production — is the difficulty that the odd, morose, supernally inhibited Anthony (Brandon McCoy) has in responding to the attentions of his highly attractive (his stated judgment, which will be everybody else’s) neighbor, Rosemary (Susan Marie Rhea).
We start — this is an Irish play, remember — in the aftermath of the funeral of Rosemary’s father, a man driven half-mad (nothing pleased him more than shooting crows) by circumstances. Those circumstances are horrifying, but they are also laugh-out-loud funny to Anthony’s dad, Tony (Kevin Adams, as good as I’ve seen him), who will make them funny to you, too. And this is the territory good Irish playwrights have staked out for generations, whether we mean McDonagh or Beckett or Synge: the horrible and the hilarious, merged and made one. Shanley mines it too.
Shanley also here uses a device which will be familiar to those who saw his movie “Moonstruck”: the casual acceptance of bizarre reasoning. When Anthony asks Rosemary’s mother, Aoife (Rena Cherry Brown) whether she’d like a Stout, she asks whether it’s from a can or a bottle. A bottle, Anthony assures her; she declines. “I don’t like the taste of glass,” she explains, “it tastes of teeth.” There’s a reason for this baffling association; but then we’re back in horrifying territory again.
The dilemma which animates the first Act is whether Tony will leave the hardscrabble family farm to Anthony, or sell it to a nephew and leave Anthony the cash. This seems to be a low-stakes crisis — Anthony hates farming — more important to Rosemary (for reasons which will become apparent) than to the apparent beneficiary. It goes on too long (Keegan wisely ends the first Act after the third scene, and carries the fourth scene into the second Act), but the actors — Adams and Rhea in particular — never lose their investment in the argument, and so we continue to be engaged by the production even when we might not be by the text.
The second Act focuses on Anthony and Rosemary, and their tortured path into each other’s arms. It is done effectively — McCoy in particular seems to infect the stage with Anthony’s agonized obliviousness — but it is impossible not to ask what Rosemary sees in this dork. Rosemary is fun, intelligent and capable in addition to being attractive. Admittedly, the place is not teeming with prospects (the play’s title is derived from its place, an area near a small town in County Westmeath), but she already has had several suitors and this is 2013, not 1910; the world is at her fingertips. Rosemary’s answer seems mystical, almost superstitious, and thus unsatisfactory; but of course love seldom has a satisfactory explanation.
closes May 28, 2017
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The hero of this production is director Mark A. Rhea, who almost diabolically moves his actors around the Keegan stage not only with a maximum of economy but to a maximum of emotional effect as well. Of particular note is his placement of Anthony during Rosemary’s second-Act speeches; Dan Martin’s fine lighting plot casts Anthony’s eyes and mouth in pools of darkness, so that he seems hollowed out by Rosemary’s plain-spoken truths. Just as good: the penultimate scene, done behind a scrim, in which Anthony swings a metal detector in a howling rainstorm. (Matthew Keenan provides the efficient set; Patrick Lord does the projections).
Look, this is minor Shanley, but it’s still Shanley, which means it’s good. Keegan’s production gives the play its full measure, never condescending to these flawed characters, thus making them sympathetic and the story charming. You won’t walk out a different person than you were when you walked in, but you may find some empathy in your heart for those in this world who don’t know what kind of person they are at all.
Outside Mullingar by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Mark A. Rhea, featuring Kevin Adams, Rena Cherry Brown, Brandon McCoy and Susan Marie Rhea. Set design: Matthew Keenan . Lighting design: Dan Martin . Costume design: Kelly Peackock . Sound design: Tony Angelini . Projection design: Patrick Lord . Set dressing and properties: Cindy Jacobs . Stage Manager: Alexis J. Hartwick, assisted by Magenta Howard . Hair and makeup design: Craig Miller . Produced by The Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.