For most modern theater-goers, Martin McDonagh has become the voice of Irish drama, and I've tended to consider the grotesquery and violence of his plays — The Lieutenant of Inishmore, A Skull in Connemara, Pillowman — as a departure from a misty, lyrical tradition. For example, I'd always thought of John Millington Synge, who was part of the group that revived theater in Ireland in the early twentieth century and included W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, as a writer who created a beautiful, original language from the speech of everyday people and wrote tone poems about nature, grief and the difficulties and sorrows of his people. But seeing The Well of the Saints at Germinal, I remembered that for Synge, too, his country was a bleak, backward place, crippled by poverty and religion and filled with small-minded, sneering people. After all, Samuel Beckett's scabrous nihilistic humor didn't just pop up out of nowhere, but came from a long Irish tradition. And while it's true no playwright ever sang as sweetly as Synge (pun intended), didn't his most famous play, Playboy of the Western World, tell of a young man who won love and acclaim for having killed his father and who was forced to attack again when the old man turned up at the end, malevolent and very, very much alive?
The Well of the Saints concerns Mary and Martin Doul, a pair of elderly blind beggars who believe themselves to be attractive and happy together. When a traveling saint restores their sight with holy water, the miracle turns disastrous: Mary and Martin discover the physical ugliness both of each other and of the muddy landscape. The villagers mock and isolate them. And when they eventually ask to have their blindness returned, their neighbors are enraged, and the saint is revealed as a self-righteous prig. Although Martin and Mary have a kind of understanding of each other and a profound bond with the physical world, they are far from warm or admirable characters. They insult each other mercilessly, and Martin repays a local blacksmith who's offered him a job by lazing around all day and attempting to seduce the man's pretty and high-spirited young fiancée.
The Well of the Saints
Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through March 8, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108,www.germinalstage.com.
If there's anything resembling redemption in this play, it lies in the music of the words, Synge's obvious love of nature and the many things to ponder here: the forms of blindness and what it really means to see, the importance of simple human contact. Ed Baierlein and Sallie Diamond — themselves husband and wife — play the Douls as both pitiable and ridiculous, giving rich, grounded performances that anchor the production. L. Corwin Christie's energy and fire as sexy Molly provide a good foil, though she's sometimes a touch loud for the tiny Germinal Stage space. Tupper Cullum makes an appropriately self-righteous and ascetic saint. But there are some weaknesses in the smaller roles, and the entire cast might have paid more attention to the rhythm and meaning of the language.
Synge died of cancer in 1909, at the age of 37, and the six plays he wrote — several of them one-acts — are seldom produced today. But Baierlein, one of the most literate artistic directors around, has made a specialty of bringing such forgotten and half-forgotten gems to the stage. In a theater world that seems intent on showing and re-showing the same old classical warhorses, dated 1950s scripts, Neil Simon revivals, ain't-women-wonderful song- and jokefests and endless productions of Nunsense, we should all be grateful that he's brought us The Well of the Saints.