Though it's set in rural Ireland in 1965, John B. Keane's The Field, now playing at the Denver Vic, tells a universal story about land -- at least on one level. Bull McCabe has been farming a few acres for several years -- fencing, tearing out weeds, fertilizing --until the barren soil has become lush pasture for his herd of cows. And now the owner, a poor widow, needs to put the field up for sale. Enter an American businessman, William Dee. He wants to pave over part of the land and set up a business selling concrete blocks, and he doesn't need anything from the surrounding community to do it -- nor does he plan to contribute anything, since he can ship in both labor and materials.
Many people are now aware of how crucial soil -- dirt -- is to our survival as a species. We know there are disputes about land all over the world, and that companies like Monsanto have driven thousands of small farmers to bankruptcy or suicide: In India alone, almost 200,000 alone have hanged themselves or swallowed poison. So we want to empathize with McCabe. But The Field is also very much about rural Irish culture in all its harshness, poverty and violence. McCabe is a creature of instinct rather than reason. He has known hunger. His belief that land belongs to the person who nurtures it carries the ring of truth, and you can't help nodding when he says things like "'Tis a sin to cover grass and clover with concrete." But he's also a vicious bully and wife-beater, a roaring, terrifying man -- played here by a passionate and larger-than-life Jim Hunt as a creature possessed -- who, with his equally unscrupulous son, Tadgh, once tracked down a donkey and beat it to death for trespassing on his field. So the outline of another theme entirely emerges, a theme of social isolation and the way the evil promulgated by one psychotic human being can spread until it engulfs an entire community. Terrified or complicit, worn down by the hardships of their own lives, the villagers enable McCabe's depredations one by one, from the widow condemned to poverty by his actions to the slimy, go-along-to-get-along pub owner and his harassed and overburdened wife, Maimie.
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Watching, I couldn't help remembering the story of another bully, and another town that closed ranks against outsiders. Ken Rex McElroy, whose irrational rages kept much of the population of Skidmore, Missouri, in a state of terror, was gunned down on the main street in 1981. Dozens of people were on the street at the time; not one would admit to having seen the killing. The case was explored by Denver author Harry MacLean in his book In Broad Daylight, which was later made into a film starring Brian Dennehy. (Interestingly, Dennehy is currently playing Bull McCabe in a revival of The Field in Dublin.) The particulars of the two stories are very different; the similarity lies in the sense of communal guilt and dread that both convey.
Presented by the Denver Victorian Playhouse through April 2, 4201 Hooker Street, 303-433-4343, www.denvervic.com.
The Field is not a great play, but it is a strong and interesting one with many vital characters, and director Rita Broderick has created a solid production, buoyed by a couple of standout performances in addition to Hunt's: Brian Landis Folkins as the smarmy but unexpectedly tough Boston businessman, and Josh Hartwell as a needy, weaselly little drunk called, ironically, Bird. There are also many funny or revelatory small moments, as when Maimie explains to the oldest of her nine children why she can't afford to take risks: "A child makes a prisoner of a woman, Leamy," she explains. And then Paige Larson, who plays the role with a fair amount of toughness and mockery, pauses, and adds with unexpected tenderness, "But you're such a lovely jailor."