The constant rain that gives Ireland such a brilliant green topography seems an apt metaphor for the soggy melodrama of “Outside Mullingar.”
Playwright John Patrick Shanley, an Irish-American best known for excavating his New York roots, sought inspiration across the pond for his newest play, which had its regional premiere at Old Log Theatre last weekend. It’s a sentimental and occasionally maudlin old shoe in which Shanley reckons well the redolent atmosphere of hardtack folk in old age and in love.
Kent Knutson’s production does not wrestle deeply with the dramaturgical deficiencies in Shanley’s script. Knutson’s instinct — and it could well be the correct one — is to nest in the charm and sentiment, hoping that the actors will win the audience with their portrayals.
Fair enough, and the good cast largely accomplishes that, although the production doesn’t land deeply in the heart.
Accents wax and wane, with the Irish brogue occasionally taking on a whiff of Norwegian, and Erik Paulson’s sets suffer from cheap construction and the necessity of lots of set changes. The saving grace is the strength of Knutson’s cast.
Shanley’s plot mechanics would seem to carry great stakes: inheritance of the farm, a grudging and unrequited love and a long-kept secret. Yet, the playwright strikes only a glancing blow at the drama that asserts itself through the lives of four tired people. Shanley writes his way out of these dilemmas with speeches and lovely phrases, but in scenes that seem to run in loops around themselves, he does not dig into the theatrical meat of transition and transformation.
It was Greenwood Night on Friday — boosting the municipality in which Old Log sits — and many of these patrons had likely not seen actor Raye Birk at work. He makes his Old Log debut in this show.
Birk lugs the weight of age and hard farm work in his portrayal of Tony Reilly. He plops into an easy chair shortly after the play opens and rarely moves for a scene in which he tells stories, hectors his son, Anthony (Michael Booth), and delivers blunt assessments of his own life expectancy and what he hopes to do with the farm after he’s gone. This is a full-throated performance by an actor who always invests his heart.
The Reillys have opened their home on this dreary day to the neighbor who has just buried her husband. Candace Barrett plays Aoife (EE-fa) Muldoon with a similar weariness. She has little optimism and is blunt in assessing her spinster daughter’s chances in romance.
She also is stout of spine in declaring that a contentious strip of land between the Reilly and Muldoon farms will not be for sale if Tony proceeds with his plan to will the place to an American cousin rather than Anthony.
Sandra Struthers Clerc brings zest and snap as Rosemary, the pipe-smoking daughter who likewise insists that Anthony get the farm. Booth has the longest psychological journey with Anthony. Why does Rosemary pursue with such desperation an opaque sad sack who hates not only farm work, but himself? The chemistry between the two takes forever to find a spark in Shanley’s underwritten (and yet meandering) scenario.
But forget all that hard work. This is a play chock full of sentiment and the aroma of the Irish countryside. Soggy, yet not unenjoyable.