John Patrick Shanley first visited his father’s birthplace in Ireland in 1993, and Outside Mullingar, which opened last year in New York, is a clear response to what he found there. We know this Ireland he depicts — rural, muddy and barren; we know of its isolated farms and the men forced to wait until middle age and beyond to inherit — unmarried, introverted, bitterly virginal. To this vision, Shanley adds an outsider’s clarity and skepticism, clouded by a strong dash of American sentimentalism. And near the end, he throws in a revelation so cockeyed and eccentric that it snaps credulity and detracts from the depth and authenticity of what’s come before.
The glory of the play lies in the language. Shanley — who won multiple writing awards, including an Oscar for the screenplay of the charming romance Moonstruck and a Pulitzer for Doubt: A Parable, which explores the case of a rigid, uncompromising nun and a beloved priest accused of sexual impropriety — has a great ear for speech, and the dialogue is often reminiscent of the great Irish dramatist John Millington Synge. It has the same flow and provides the same bounty of pure aural pleasure, along with wonderful moments of humor and tidbits of poetic insight. So even after the cockeyed revelation (and although it took a certain act of will), I remained enchanted by this play, and hoping everything would work out for a central couple twisted by lifetimes of disappointment and kept apart by anger and fear.
Old Tony, cantankerous and sickly, plans to withhold the family farm from Anthony, the 42-year-old son who’s been tending it for years, and sell it to a nephew in America. He contends that Anthony doesn’t love the land — and it’s true that Anthony seems perpetually doleful. But surely a farmer’s relationship with a plot of ground that requires constant labor and can either break or sustain him through circumstances over which he has no control is always complicated. At the next farm over live the newly widowed Aoife and her daughter, Rosemary, who is determined to help Anthony hang on to his farm for reasons that are soon transparent.
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Even before the problematic revelation, Outside Mullingar has taken a dive into sentimentality with a drawn-out death scene in which all the lifelong issues between father and son are resolved and the central concern of inheritance has simply melted away. Time passes. Tony and Aoife now vanish from the evening, and with them goes a lot of the script’s prickly-sweet pleasure.
But not all of it, and only for a little while. For all its surprising lapses, Outside Mullingar ultimately makes for a lovely, satisfying evening. And much of that stems from the committed performances of the very fine four-person cast assembled by director Rebecca Remaly for the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s production, a regional premiere. I have now seen Chris Kendall dying on this very same stage twice — here, and two years ago in Annapurna — and he does it with terrific spirit and vigor. If anything rescues Tony’s soppy deathbed scene, it’s Kendall’s passionate, bone-deep performance — though I have to admit that by this point, I sorely missed the nasty old crank of the earlier acts. Timothy McCracken matches Kendall in actorly truth, giving a moving portrayal of a man struggling to maintain dignity and selfhood in a lonely, brutal, soul-stealing world.
Billie McBride’s Aoife provides a perfect counterpoint to Kendall’s Tony, her sharpness piercing through the sludge of his ill humor, her common sense grounding vague pronouncements by both men about life, death and the sky. I’m not sure how Rosemary was played by Debra Messing in the New York production, but I’m really happy that Emily Paton Davies doesn’t sport the long red pigtail I see Messing wearing in photographs. I’m even happier that she and director Remaly chose to make the character so fierce — completely validating her mother’s observation that if Rosemary had competed in the Olympics, Ireland would have taken home boxing gold instead of a mere couple of bronzes. Since she was a child, this woman has fought full-frontal without grace or guile for what she wants — whether physically, through financial negotiation, or with a stubborn, unmoving patience — and you know she’s going to get it. Which doesn’t make the moment when she finally does any less satisfying.
Outside Mullingar, presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through October 11, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 888-512-7469, boulderensembletheatre.org.