Outside Mullingar, by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by John Gould Rubin. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Perhaps the silence around the thing is as good as the thing itself."
Michael Hayden and Mary Bacon; photo: Mairi McCormick
There is the girl, Rosemary Muldoon, and she lives on the farm next to the boy, Anthony Reilly. His father and her mother are old friends and the families have had a lot of interaction over the years, particularly in connection with a strip of land that used to be Reilly land and now is Muldoon land. John Patrick Shanley has constructed a romance around this simple set of circumstances and it can be seen right now on the stage at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Dorset, Vermont. Shanley is a playwright for whom magical realism is nothing less than a distant cousin to operatic verismo. Where Puccini could set glorious music for his realistic stories like "La Boheme" and "Madama Butterfly," Shanley provides human poetry for his moon and weather entranced would-be lovers.
These two people have grown up together, known one another since childhood and have never considered each other as potential partners, something that has occurred, though been set aside as unlikely, by their parents. Rosemary is the first to realize that there is something unanticipated between them and when Anthony discovers for himself that his neighbor is more than merely an annoyance it takes him more than three years to make a decisive move.
Of course, they are Irish and this is Ireland and we're outside the town of Mullingar and away from the influence of other people. Also no one can talk more, louder and faster than Rosemary and no one can listen more slowly, with less effect and mumble all the while like Anthony. This couple form a match not made in heaven, a place Rosemary may not actually believe in, but one made on solid ground but with the aid of candlelight, storms and death at the door in the form of ghosts and a shotgun.
Shanley's comedies, whether Italian-American or Irish, always flow with a poetic sensibility and this one develops that aspect, for sure, in its lengthy final scene. When Anthony finally shows up at Rosemary's house she morphs into the spider enticing his honey bee into her sticky web. He cannot resist her, try as he might, and this lush comedy finally transcends the tragedy of their lives, the death of their parents and the loss of their emotional virginity as with laughter and provocation each admits to their feelings and the romance begins.
How this all happens is in the hands of the playwright and the director John Gould Rubin along with the set designer Narelle Sissons, the lighting designer Michael Giannitti and the Projections created by Kevin Ramser. Jointly this team has forged stage magic that is so lush and at times so subtle that the miraculous moments of magical realism emerge like the birth of an elephant: complete before you realize they started. Rubin has taken the tenderness and the humor in Shanley's script, mixed them with clotted cream and created totally believable characters on the Dorset stage. The language here is dense and illustrative and the Irish brogues are thick and mysterious. Rubin has been tasked with making everything understandable and he has done it with a group of actors who could probably read the phone book in four different accents and make us love it.
Mary Bacon has a rapid-fire tongue that could run rings around circus animals and keep them guessing where she might stop for a breath of air. Rosemary's mood swings are equalled by her exhausting verbal tempi. Commanding, cajoling, caressing, confusing, she leaps across chasms to reach her next vantage point. Bacon is brilliant doing this with her voice and her arms and flashing eyes and sneering lips. Her Rosemary is a devil disguised as a saint hiding a very human heart that has been aflame for a long time with no fuel to burn. I would love to see this actress in a slighter, lesser romance some time just to see what she could bring to it. In this one she brings on the heat, turns up the burner and enlightens the world around her.
As her mother, Aoife Muldoon, Jennifer Harmon turns in an endearing performance. As the frail and much older matron she outcharms Maureen O'Hara. Her scenes with daughter Rosemary are so oddly wholesome that even Bacon is restrained for those moments. When she and Jonathan Hogan have their time together she inspires romance in their hard times. Harmon presents reasonable facts with determined reason and she is lovely doing it. You want to reach out and hug her.
Jonathan Hogan is the elder Tony Reilly, a hot-headed, stuffy old guy who has seen it all, lived most of it and lost his one great relationship, the wife he married but never loved. Tony is a man without remorse, only regrets. His son is a disappointment to him but he cherishes the younger man for whatever Anthony can bring to him. Spoiler Alert: His death scene with his son holding him is one of the most beautiful fragments of a life I have seen on a stage in a long while and everyone on the technical end helps here a lot. Hogan is never less than excellent in any role; in this one he is as close to real life as we can expect in a poetic play.
It is Michael Hayden as Anthony the younger who makes this evening of theater so very worthwhile. In spite of any nice comments made above about anyone else, Hayden is the one. His performance is so exhaustive an examination of Irish romantic nature that by the end of the nearly two hour one act play it seems a miracle that he can still be on his feet and smiling. This actor does not take his character from A to Z; he takes Anthony there and back and onto a return trip before he's done. In a scene of hilarious revelations Hayden holds on to the stage reality of Anthony and never budges an inch from that interior place where the frightened Irishman really dwells. It is so very nice to find an actor who understands what it is to play a man so complex that even King Lear seems to be a simpleton by comparison. Shanley and Rubin and Hayden seem to be living together in this character on the stage in Dorset.
Barbara A. Bell's perfect costumes help transition this talented quartet into their respective roles. The program includes an essay by Shanley about his first exposure to the people of this place, outside Mullingar, in the village of Killucan in County Westmeath. It is a place we get to visit thanks to the author where we meet some folks who will never come to see us in any other way. Knowing that they've made this journey, it is our responsibility, our calling if you will, to meet them halfway and find out for ourselves just what they're all about.
Jonathan Hogan and Jennifer Harmon; photo: Mairi McCormick
Michael Hayden and Mary Bacon; photo: Mairi McCormick
Outside Mullingar plays through August 15 at the Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vermont. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-867-2223 or go on line at dorsettheatrefestival.org.