Live, on stage together for the first time in 20 years, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Candace Barrett and Raye Birk. Veteran actors (and teachers), this old married couple portray neighbors who are vaguely unsatisfied with their children in “Outside Mullingar.” The John Patrick Shanley play will open Friday in a regional premiere at Old Log Theater in Greenwood.
Debra Messing and Brian F. O’Byrne headlined the show when it played a limited engagement on Broadway last January, but it’s Barrett and Birk — by virtue of their accomplished longevity — who draw advance notice for the Old Log production, directed by R. Kent Knutson.
Michael Booth (most recently in the Jungle’s “Golden Pond”) and Sandra Struthers Clerc (“Radio Man” at History Theatre) play the romantic leads in what the New York Times called Shanley’s best play since 2005’s “Doubt,” the Tony and Pulitzer winner that was turned into a film and an opera by Minnesota Opera.
“Outside Mullingar” marks the further evolution of the new Old Log. None of the four actors has worked there before, and the theater is not known for staging plays fresh from Broadway. This is the kind of newer stuff you’d expect to see at Park Square or the Jungle, or one of the Guthrie’s secondary stages. Knutson, Old Log’s artistic director, saw it last year in New York and immediately got on the phone.
“It’s exciting stuff happening here,” said Barrett after a recent rehearsal. “Of course, we all have a sense of standing on the shoulders of Don,” former owner Don Stolz.
Knutson is part of the new regime that took over when Greg Frankenfield bought the theater in 2013 from Stolz.
Testing the new Log
Birk, whose local résumé includes dozens of Guthrie productions, made his first drive out to Old Log last spring to see “Steel Magnolias.” Shelli Place, who acted in that play and is a former student of Birk’s and Barrett’s, told Birk that he needed to play the old, enfeebled father in “Outside Mullingar.” He picked up the script and felt it was worth his trouble.
“Everyone thinks I’m always at the Guthrie and not available,” said Birk. “But I am around, and this worked out perfectly.”
Coincidentally, he and Booth will head to the Guthrie after “Mullingar” for the April opening of “The Crucible.” They have worked together often, including stagings of “A Christmas Carol,” where Booth has played Cratchit to Birk’s Scrooge. With “Mullingar,” Booth suggested that he will be the “abused son” of Birk’s character rather than the “abused underling.”
In Shanley’s story, Anthony (Booth) and Rosemary (Struthers Clerc) eye each other warily from their perches on adjoining farms. Birk’s Tony dismisses his son’s ability to continue the hard life of farming and plans to sell the farm to an American cousin. This is perceived as something of a betrayal in the eyes of Rosemary, and by the time the curtain closes after 95 minutes, glimmers of sunshine peek through the heavy Irish fog.
“This is a very genuine play — very full,” Booth said. “Shanley is a good listener, and you hear that in his dialogue. It really jumps off the page.”
Struthers Clerc returned to the Twin Cities last year after 10 years on the East Coast and in Russia, where she worked toward her MFA. With her red hair, she approximates Messing, who garnered attention for her Broadway debut as Rosemary.
“When I came back last year, people said the Old Log was different,” she said, explaining her first foray to the playhouse.
Taking work home
Knutson is rehearsing his cast for only three weeks — two weeks, really, and a week of tech. Birk and Barrett, who have been married for 49 years, got quite familiar with the script and discussed it at home. However, they don’t bring the work home.
“You can’t do that,” Barrett said. “You have to let the other performers inside the work. It has to happen among us.” For many years, she had a career in museum management, and that kept her away from the stage. After she and Birk moved to the Twin Cities in 2003, Barrett began to rediscover her affinity for theater. In addition to directing and acting, she teaches acting at the Guthrie.
The chance to work together is sort of a bonus that neither was looking for with “Mullingar.” It really was the script that drew them.
“In an age of cynicism and coolness, this play is alive and passionate and about being in love,” Birk said. “Who’s writing about that anymore?”