Outside Mullingar will take you to the seemingly desolate Midlands of Ireland, its actors with convincing Irish accents, the kettle on for tea and bottles of Guiness, the rain so ubiquitous that hardened cigarette smoker Rosemary Muldoon (Amy Hutchins) has strategies for keeping dry while indulging her habit outdoors.
The play begins with neighbors gathering after the funeral of Chris Muldoon, father of Rosemary and husband of Aoife (Dorothy Stanley, and pronounced closer to "Eva."), hosted in the farmhouse kitchen of Tony Reilly (James Handy) and his son Anthony (Michael Stewart Allen). The older characters, Tony and Aoife, anticipate their own deaths out loud and worry about what will happen to their respective adult children, each left alone on their adjacent farms. Tony has lines both witty and mean, as he taunts his son with threats to leave the family farm to a distant American cousin, calling Anthony a "half-woman," who isn't sufficiently rooted to the land. "I see you with your magazines," huffs Tony to his son, as though reading about electronics is a cardinal sin worthy of banishment.
The themes of death, and the handing down of Irish land, permeate the play and drive the plot, which zigzags with delightful secrets and surprises. In the end, though, John Patrick Shanley's play (based in part on his own family history) is a dark romantic comedy about the "kids," the middle-aged, never-married Anthony and Rosemary, born side by side and in love since childhood, though maybe they don't yet know it. As in all romantic comedies, by the end of the play they will realize their feelings for one another. The realization is hard-earned.
Amy Hutchins, who portrays Rosemary Muldoon
These characters love to brood. The gray rain, the loneliness, the unrelenting hard work of farming cause them to wonder if life could be happier elsewhere. They both dream, but vaguely, of the possibility of escape via "Lufthansa," said as though actually leaving is as foreign a concept as the airline's gutteral-sounding name.
The acting is outstanding and strikes right to the bone. Stanley portrays a convincing widow and fading matriarch of her household. Handy's delivery is funny when meant to be, and cutting when directed toward his son. Hutchins's Rosemary is rough, tough, outspoken. Michael Stewart Allen expertly balances his character on an edge between his morose pining for his childhood sweetheart Fiona and his put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other focus in running the farm. His facial expressions say everything.
The play is gorgeously written, capturing some of the poetry of Irish expression and with some well-placed zingers. ("Thinking's worse than February.") The deathbed scene of redemption, while well-acted, seems a little too pat; apparently it actually happened in Shanley's family but one wonders if the play might have done as well, or better, without Tony's about-face. The character of Rosemary raises interesting questions if one wants to momentarily leave the traditional rom-com formula. How and why does Rosemary maintain her attraction to Anthony, a man with whom she converses almost never throughout decades? When the sun comes out and they stare through the open window at the end, has she in fact gotten her man, or her years-long fantasy of him? And Anthony's secret? Real and credible, or (in my view) metaphorical?
Shaker Bridge Theatre is small; the farthest seat in the house sits maybe 20 feet from the stage's center. It's a perfect setting for this play, where the audience feels as if it is practically peering in through a window, nose to glass, of the dreary Reilly kitchen, with its worn cardboard storage boxes in plain view.
Outside Mullingar runs at the Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield NH through October 28. For tickets and further information, contact them through their website or at 603.448.3750.
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