Outside Mulligar by John Patrick Shaneley, directed by Wilson Milam, Through May 17
What is it about Irish plays? Or rather, what is it about plays about the Irish? Plays about the English, the French, or the Americans all embrace differing groups or attitudes, but if the play is about the Irish, then the overstuffed cupboard door gives way and let all the tropes, archetypes, and stereotypes come flying out. Rural poverty. Drinking. Violence. Depression. Grand gestures. Oaths. Tempers. Family feuds. Superstition. Signs and voices. Religion. Self-destructive behavior of all types. It is like that when you choose to write about the Irish, you get a kit, and you're expected to use all the tropes in the kit.
I can see how it attracts, of course. The language can be eloquent, and an Irish lilt can make even asking for directions to the bus stop seem otherworldy. Initially, the words seem to come tumbling out at such a rate that you feel like you've grabbed onto a moving roller coaster, but soon the calluses in your eardrums build up and you can follow well enough. And one of the tropes of the Irish play is that its characters simultaneously speak their minds and hearts without thinking, plus are emotionally prickly enough to take offense at anything being said.
So, anyway, Outside Mulligar is a relatively simple comedy wrapped up in tropish Ireland, where no Blarney Stone goes unturned. The Muldoons and the Reillys have been neighbors and rivals for generations. At one point father Tony Reilly (Sean G. Griffin) sold the road access for his farm to the Muldoons, and this has been a burr in the saddle for Reilly and his son Anthony (M.J. Sieber) ever since. The passing of the Muldoon patriarch creates a chance to get the land back, first from Oeife (Kimberly King) and later from the surviving daughter Rosemary (Emily Chisholm).
Of course, nothing is that simple, being an Irish play, and there is a cascade of family secrets, lost loves, snarling arguments, misunderstandings, accidents, and incidents. Passions flicker on and off like erratic rural electrics, and despite modern references (the Chinese Olympics, modern farm machinery, in vitro fertilization), it still feels like we are but three steps from the Potato Famine. There is romance and happy ending, but the path is strewn with thorns, mostly planted by individuals who consider themselves unworthy in the first place.
And the reason it works at all is from the efforts of strong actors. Kimberly King as the hard-as-nails, romantic-at-heart Rosemary (another Irish trope) does most of the heavy lifting. M.J.Seiber has a harder road - he's simultaneously called upon to be sensitive and oafish in turns, committed to the land but harboring his own secret, which may only be comically revealed. He acquits himself, but it feels like he is dragged in multiple directions and while you want him to be happy by the end of the first act, and you similarly want to shake him until he rattles. Sean G. Griffin and Kimberly King are the parents who provide grounding for the entire operation and set up the fireworks in the second act between Rosemary and Anthony. All of them are REP vets, ranging from Glengarry Glen Ross (which sounds like an Irish Play, but isn't), to Pullman Porter Blues to Inspecting Carol. So kudos to a production that puts the Repertory concept to work at the REP.
It is all in all a good performance for an OK play, and pales only because there has been so much good material this season from the REP. The two monstrous LBJ plays loom large, and August Wilson stands out in any season he is presented. Yet Lizard Boy was every bit as good as The Piano Lesson, and The Vaudevillians was a tasty opening morsel that allows people to say they saw Jinx Monsoon just when she was hitting the big time. Outside Mullingar follows after these, and Dear Elizabeth after that. The weakest play was The Comparables, and even that would have been merely average in previous seasons. This has been the strongest season in years, and fitting testament to its Creative Direction, Jerry Manning, who passed on this year. Next year has its work cut out for it.
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