Irish American play at Mordialloc Theatre Company

 Theatre Review by Frances Devlin-Glassoutside-mullingar

John Patrick Shanley: Outside Mullingar, Mordialloc Theatre Company, directed by Helen Ellis, seen 17 Feb. 2017

John Patrick Shanley is a prolific Irish-American playwright (23 to date), most famous for his Pulitzer-prize-winning play, Doubt: A Parable (2004), which was turned into a movie that was nominated for 5 Oscars, and won a Golden Globe for Merryl Streep. I’ve seen several productions of this play (but not the movie), which is about a priest suspected by an over-zealous nun of clerical abuse. Written at the time when enquiries into such phenomena were in full-flight around the world, including in Ireland, it filled me with disquiet because of its deliberate side-stepping, and minimising, of important issues.  But it struck me then how well this playwright knew catholic culture and how loyal he was to it.

This more recent play, Outside Mullingar, is, I think, his first set in Ireland. His background is the Bronx, and the lower class, and he’s emphatically Irish. He is quoted on IMDB as saying:

I always knew I’d have to come home eventually. I’m Irish as hell: Kelly on one side, Shanley on the other. My father had been born on a farm in the Irish Midlands. He and his brothers had been shepherds there, cattle and sheep, back in the early 1920s. I grew up surrounded by brogues and Irish music, but stayed away from the old country till I was over 40. I just couldn’t own being Irish.

What interests me in this quotation is his resistance to his Irish background.

I’m glad I did not know he was American-Irish while I was watching the play, as I’m sure I’d have spent too much energy testing his Irishness, and worrying about the assumption of Irishness. I have to say, the script got under my guard completely and was delightfully immersive. The dialogue is quick-fire, witty, and very tellingly goes to a lot of stereotypical Irish obsessions – with land, in particular, but also with sexuality, and in particular women’s sexuality. Perhaps the most moving thing it does is to confront head-on intergenerational incompetence of men in dealing with emotions. Two key scenes, one with the dying father, and the other with the young woman drawing out her intended’s emotional nature as a dentist draws teeth, were very moving in the case of the first and funny and shocking, and yes sentimental, in the case of the second.  The (capacity) audience loved the romance, and often audibly expressed shock at the violence done in suppressing real feelings.  One could not but be entranced. Although the romantic resolution was entirely predictable from the start (so I don’t think I can be accused of spoilers), the journey to that end was so full of byzantine twists and utterly seductive that it maintained interest. Misinformation along the farm path was part of the fun of the play.

Helen Ellis, a highly experienced professional, in her first role as director at Mordialloc, has gone for a naturalistic set which allows the action to move easily between two adjacent farm-houses (and their kitchens, and a bedroom) and a barn (quaintly referred to as ‘the manger’). There’s also a beautifully (and appropriately symbolic) constructed stone fence and gate (all praise to Dad’s Army!). This design by Jack Geraghty made for quick scene-changes, mostly. The slowest was the bed, and I wondered if an easy chair might not have done as well, but I’m a minimalist in staging. I loved many details, like the hay bales that were stacked vertically, but rearranged for more intimacy.

Helen Ellis’s master-stroke (mistress-stroke?) was her brilliant casting. It was a tight ensemble with Juliet Hayday and Melanie Rowe as the waspish mother and bolshie daughter respectively, and Stephen Shinkfield as the reluctant and awkward Lothario and Eric Hayes as the truculent father. Dialogue was fast, crisp, full of witticisms given their full value with good timing, and moved the play quickly forward. Although it’s a talk-y play, it was never at risk of longueurs, and accents were good. There was lots of business used for character development, which the audience was quick to pick up on – as for example, the son tying up his apron back to front, or the daughter nervously picking up the broom to sweep. I also enjoyed watching the old father and his son Anthony grow in their roles – they really came into their own in the death scene, and Shinkfield, a young but very experienced actor, built on this in the intense final scenes without ever too much compromising his character’s clumsiness. Juliet Hayday was superb as the interfering widow, and cut a fine figure as an almost professional griever and gossip.

It was hard not to enjoy the land-centred beliefs that the two main characters shared, and the building motifs of the white heather and bees, and especially Rosemary’s earthy pragmatism about time wasted when it’s not spent loving, a view interestingly shared with the crusty old father of her inamorata. Her proactive wooing was straight out of Irish mythology – frank, free and urgent.

Characterisation was far from being maudlin. The dialogue, though sentimental at times, was often acerbic and probing. The final scene, where the young woman becomes as forthright as a sledge-hammer-wielding Celtic queen, involved a fierce interrogation of the bashful male which was hilarious and ended precisely where it needed to. And the other climactic scene, the deathbed of the father, began with what seemed like viciousness about his dead wife, only to explain how lust for life and pleasure explained the conundrum of how the parcel of land came to change hands.

It’s an Irish play alright, at the softer end of the spectrum, so if you can get a ticket, I can promise it’s an entertaining night.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances has reviewed theatre since the last two decades of last century.