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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Outside Mullingar — Philadelphia Theatre Co. at Suzanne Roberts

untitled (152)“Outside Mullingar” is a roundabout love story that is tinged with Irish loquaciousness, humor, and frankness that keeps you listening and, sporadically, laughing until John Patrick Shanley deigns to bend the pointed jabbering towards setting romance on the hoof. By the time “Mullingar” ends, you feels a strange satisfaction for all that happens and how Shanley gets around to it, but there will be a stretch when you are being entertained by badinage while wondering when, or if, anything substantive in going to evolve.

A quartet of sharp actors who have a way with gags and rejoinders animates Mary B. Robinson’s production for the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Kathleen McNenny, in particular, makes her character a force of nature who approaches matters directly and presents her cases in ways that compel you to reckon with her. Timing is critical to Robinson’s staging. Without it, “Mullingar” would turn flat fast. McNenny, David Howey, Anthony Lawton, and Beth Dixon are adroit in delivering their best and most cantankerous lines with flawless precision, so any venom and vinegar Shanley laced through his dialogue comes through with precision.

This is important because “Outside Mullingar” is a shaggy dog story. You see quickly where it might lead, but you have to slog through a lot of blather to get to the meat of a situation or conversation. Shanley’s narrative is almost like the remote Irish terrain in which his play is set. With only expanses of fields and farmlands to wander, the characters need to cultivate small pleasures, like smoking or gossiping or walking for hours on end, to occupy them. We need to take some delight in the verbal byplay that separates sequences of note and consequence, or our minds will wander, and “Mullingar” could become tedious.

Luckily, Robinson and her cast are amusingly diverting enough to prevent that from happening. They make you willing to wait for the big scenes, mostly propelled by McNenny’s head-on way of confronting a situation, a way that tends to cause and settle conflict simultaneously, although the most touching passage is an intimate, sentimental exchange between Lawton and Howey.

Robinson invites her cast to give each of their characters a strong and distinct personality, so even though their lives have been generally parochial and eventless, they have that Irish way to viewing everything comically and gloomily at once.  Shanley has given everyone a tic that helps to inform the kind of person he or she is. McNenny’s Rosemary holds a twenty-year-old grudge and can be so fierce, her mother jokes Ireland would have won Olympic gold, and not bronze, in boxing if an angry Rosie was the competitor. Howey’s Tony has a bug about love for the ancestral farmland he realizes he will soon have to bequeath. Dixon’s Aoife, met just after burying her husband, talks about her death being imminent and leaving Rosemary all alone. Lawton’s Anthony is the most complex and intricately drawn character. His tic is being spurned by a “true love,” Fiona, when he was age 16. His depth comes from his quiet contemplations, a sense of duty that outweighs by pounds his measure of joy, his loneliness, and his imagination. Anthony believes he is a bee, a drone, of course.

Lawton has the most difficult role because while Anthony has the most going on in his mind and heart, he is also the least demonstrative or expressive of the characters. Lawton has to find a way to play Anthony’s bottled-up, relatively  taciturn sweetness while letting us see the 42-year-old’s sadness and longing. He does a thorough and admirable job, and his work in “Outside Mullingar” in the finest in a collection of excellent portrayals Lawton has treated audiences to this year.

Because Howey and Dixon are so deft at being assertive, and McNenny is unstoppable at it, Robinson’s “Mullingar” maintains a spirit of liveliness even when only idle conversation is occurring. Lawton, whose Anthony can speak his mind, when he does talk, is good at changing a mood or a tone with his quieter and more introspective character.

So “Mullingar” wends it way to an astoundingly wistful finish, and the trick is to stay with Shanley’s play as it meanders through arguments, discussions, and confrontations to its pleasing conclusion.

Killucan, the village in Mullingar where Shanley’s play takes place, is a fairly bleak outpost populated mostly by farmers who have lived among each other for generations and know everyone’s business because, except for agriculture and its economics, there isn’t much more to know.

None of the Reillys or Muldoons we see have spent much time in Dublin. Some have not spent a day there. They, like most Irish characters in plays, know classical and Hibernian culture, but they don’t read, go to movies, or watch plays. Anthony has even been denied the diversion of television since Tony broke their set. On purpose, to keep Anthony from watching football. Make that soccer. Their lives are composed of every day survival. A day in the fields, an evening with a cup of tea or something stronger while sitting by a turf fire and, perhaps, indulging in a biscuit (cookie).

Indirectly, Shanley asks how one finds affection, romance, or even purpose beyond plowing and animal husbandry, in such a place. Many who are born in Killucan leave, as Anthony’s siblings have, and as both he and Rosemary discuss. Life is grander and offers far more variety outside Mullingar.

With everyone so close, relationships become important, whether they are mildly congenial, deep in terms of friendship,  like that shared by Tony Reilly, Aoife Muldoon, and their respective late spouses, or loving. Neighbors are the only respite from a life of physical work and lonesome evenings.

Robinson shrewdly creates the mood and setting that comes with such a place. The Reillys and Muldoons know each other well, having had adjoining property for their entire lives, and the familiarity shows and gives the PTC production some texture and spirit.

It is the secret, but well-planned and obsessive, desire of Rosemary that eventually moves the piece forward in a way that gratifies all Shanley and Robinson have done to insure good storytelling technique. You need an actress of grace and power, one who can be brash and even bullying, while remaining sympathetic and likeable, to fulfill all that Rosemary has to do to give “Outside Mullingar” any heft.  Kathleen McNenny, who will always have a place in my admiration for her unforgettably moving Josie in O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” at McCarter, more than accomplishes the feat. You feel a frisson of anticipation every time her Rosemary arrives on stage and an actual thrill when Rosemary plies her boldness on stubborn, recalcitrant Reilly men.

As play and production, “Outside Mullingar” asks you to hang in and be patient as the main plot unfolds. Thanks to McNenny, Lawton, Howey, and Dixon, your good will in doing so will be worth it.

McNenny never tries to make Rosemary soft, warm, or sentimental. Instead, she endows her with a sincerity, honesty, and wit that makes you root for her even when you are not sure what she wants is right. Even for her.

Rosemary has all the time in the world, especially after her mother passes, but she wastes no time on nonsense. When she wants something she asks for it. If she objects to something you’re saying or doing, she’ll tell you to your face. If she believes she needs to stand up for others, she will. Rosemary is a woman of action with no compunction about being unpleasant, and McNenny plays her with the energy and foul temper that demands Rosemary be heeded. Especially since a grudge is the best that can be expected from resisting her.

Rosemary exacts a lot for, and from, others. She is one for justice as well as vindictiveness, and she drives hard, irresistible bargains you can’t help but agree to since one crosses Rosemary at his or her peril. Failing to make a bargain foments wrath enough. The penalty for breaking a bargain would be too horrible for anyone to consider. Thus, Rosemary usually gets her way whether the issue involves inheritance, land rights, marriage, or alerting an owner about something valuable she found.

McNenny finds the wit in Rosemary’s retorts, and her Irish brogue only makes her most cutting lines the funnier.

Anthony Lawton’s character, also Anthony, walks a fine line between maturity and extended adolescence. At 42, he has proven to be a capable farmer, whose embrace of modern agricultural methods has served the Reilly farm well. Yet, there’s a callowness to Lawton’s Anthony. He is uncomfortable about women since he was disappointed by first love at age 16 and is resigned to live his life in lonely bachelorhood unless he summonses the unlikely gumption to leave his father to his own devices and move to Dublin to lead a city life.

Lawton can confront his father, yet there’s always more than a small touch of deference that comes from filial respect. Anthony is sentimental in a way his father or Rosemary cannot fathom. He can banter with Rosemary, but he is easily insulted or irritated, especially when Rosemary issues commands, and he often walks away to sing, enjoy his reverie that includes hearing voices, or indulge in his fantasy life as a bee.

Lawton packs a lot into his performance. Anthony registers as competent and responsible without getting any joy or satisfaction from his work. He is a man who is resigned to be unhappy, yet has activities, like his walking and pretending he’s a bee, to sustain him. Life hasn’t given Anthony much, and he doesn’t seem to be serious about demanding much more than what he has. Unless his father forces him to think of a future he’d rather not face and doesn’t want.

Lawton is deft at showing the many sides of Anthony, an impressive feat because Anthony is not outgoing or innately dramatic. His arc, or journey, as actors might say, has the severest curve, but much of Anthony’s character is internal. It is to Lawton’s credit that he makes so much clear while relying on facial expressions, body positions, nervous gestures, and other non-verbal communication tools to do it.

David Howey is a grand good geezer as the obstinate, opinionated, and overbearing Tony Reilly, Anthony’s father.

Shanley frames Tony from the comic rascals you find in O’Casey and Synge. He is a better man than Captain Jack Boyle or the characters we saw in Lady Gregory’s plays a month back, but he has the Irish way with words and can reel off a one-liner or terse comment with the skill and precision of Patek-Philippe assembling watches. Played by Howey, Tony can keep you entertained just by explaining his cockeyed reasons for doing most things, especially when his land is concerned.

In addition to playing Tony’s comedy as if the character is thinking up his funny lines as he goes, Howey has a remarkable dramatic moment in which he tells his personal story about love. The symbols Tony mentions while remembering how an arrangement became a romance are cunningly repeated by Shanley, and expressed in Dennis Parichy’s lighting design, when love dawns on the younger characters.

Beth Dixon gave a sterling performance as a strong, direct woman trying to guide her confused grandson in last year’s “4000 Miles” at PTC. She was the picture of an older woman who has remained sound of mind and young in attitude and who knew when to love and when to offer wise advice. As Aoife Muldoon, she entertainingly plays the flip side of her “4000 Miles” character.

Aoife is a well-known and well-liked woman in Killucan. She has been involved with life there while tending her farm for almost eight decades. She is aware of all the locals think and do, and she is outspoken about what she believes to be true and what is just blarney.

A widow who has been invited to the Reillys’ cottage for comfort following her husband’s funeral, Aoife talks openly about her husband, her marriage, and all else that is going on. Like her castmates, Dixon is spot-on at timing her character’s laugh lines and creates a likeable portrait of a woman who expects to follow her husband to the grave quickly and has no call or reason to say anything but what is on her mind.

Aoife is capable, but it is clear that she has depended a lot on Rosemary and worries about Rosemary’s future following her passing. This, even though Rosemary is age 35 and appears to be quite ready to fend for herself.

Dixon is funny and authentic in the scenes in which he and Tony converse. She makes the Irish setting seem real and natural. Through her Aoife, you get the sense of what life in a town like Killucan has been like and how it affects a person’s thinking.

Shanley has a great ear and a bright way of getting a true Irish tone to his dialogue. His story may delay the meat of his play, but even when “Outside Mullingar” is essentially static, there are wonderful lines and descriptions that amuse and finely drawn characters Lawton, McNenny, Howey, and Dixon flesh out with an artist’s savvy.

Jason Simm’s simple but evocative sets convey a great sense of authenticity. The Reilly and Muldoon homes are basic, but they have everything the characters and Shanley need to relate their story and make you think of rural Ireland. Janus Stefanowicz’s costumes are realistic and serve the characters wearing them well. Dennis Parichy’s lighting aids Shanley’s and Robinson’s conceptions and symbols. Christopher Colucci makes a lovely suite of the classic Francis McPeake folk tune, “The Wild Mountain Thyme,” that Anthony is always humming and which reminds him of his late mother who sang it while doing housework. His rendition is haunting and sweetly set ups the various sequences of Shanley’s play.

“Outside Mullingar” produced by the Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs through Sunday, December 28 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 1 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10 and 17, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. No performances are scheduled for Christmas Eve or Christmas, Dec. 24 and 25. Tickets range from $59 to $46 and can be obtained by calling 215-985-0420 or by visiting www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.

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