Actors excel in an Irish play that touches closer to home
"Outside Mullingar" at the Shaker Bridge Theatre until Oct. 28
By JEFF EPSTEIN
Mullingar” is a Tony Award-nominated play written by John Patrick
Shanley. The current production at the Shaker Bridge Theater in
Enfield, running through October 28, stars Michael Stewart Allen as
Anthony Reilly, James Handy as Tony Reilly, Amy Hutchins as Rosemary
Muldoon, and Dorothy Stanley as Aoife Muldoon.
The play is set in Ireland and in Irish culture, and therefore initially leads you to believe it is about Ireland in some way. But the Irish aspect is really incidental; you will find human relationships that seem more universal and much closer than Ireland. The play is probably only Irish because author Shanley is.
The heart of the play is about relationships: between parents and children — fathers and sons in particular—and between men and women. It’s about the torture the characters create for themselves, and really any of us can create, in our terrible struggle to be right with God, right with our ancestors, and right with ourselves. The characters, full of unintentional irony, manifest wrongs as they struggle to do the right thing.
The play is billed as a romantic comedy, and certainly the dialog does have a few laugh lines. However, anyone in an audience watching this production may be taken a little aback as the story unfolds. The settings are lifelike and realistic, the costumes convincing, and the scenes and crisp dialog bristle with tension as family and friends speak harshly to each other in a way only close relations do. That tension may feel familiar, and perhaps uncomfortable enough to want to look away. But this small company and theater will not let you. You are trapped in the situation just as the characters are. The actors, brilliant in their characterizations, seem to subliminally beckon: Don’t be afraid, stay here with us, it will be worth the trouble.
Part of the plot has to do with running a farm in Ireland, but it could just as well be a farm in New Hampshire or Vermont, and the characters could be Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans or anyone else. (Shanley, by the way, is the author of the movie “Moonstruck,” which was set in the Italian-American community of Brooklyn.)
The four characters in the cast have different relationships to each other, but the most important ones are in pairs: father Tony and son Anthony, Anthony and Rosemary, Tony and Rosemary, and Aoife and each of them in turn. Things change as time moves along. (Interestingly, the temporal changes are felt rather than explicitly named: the audience can pick up what has changed.)
Each of the character’s world-views are displayed and deflated as they rationalize feelings they are not even fully aware of until challenged. In those challenges, feelings change and those brittle opinions change as well, sometimes drastically and with regret for not having changed sooner. All those changes are about growth, however. They are ultimately about love and the willingness, even in fear, to name and claim love, especially for Anthony and Rosemary.
In a larger sense, the story is about having the courage to face life and experience it to the fullest, with all its joys and sorrows. It is very difficult for these four people to do that, yet each of them gets a payoff when they rise past their fears.
The epilogue of the story on the evening viewed, however, was not in the text of the play, but in something actor Michael Stewart Allen did — intentionally or incidentally — when the play was over. For in the play’s last scene, a bottle of Guinness stout is shared in two glasses. As the scene ended and the lights went down, a small amount of beverage remained in each of the glasses. The lights then came up, and the cast came out to take a bow from the applauding and appreciative audience. Then the actors turned to leave. Just before Allen left the stage, he picked up his glass and drank down that last swallow of Guinness, leaving no delicious drop untasted, nothing of the experience unfulfilled, and no bit of that joy unrealized.
Shanley would be proud of him.