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A Joycean portrait of Limerick

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

PIGTOWN, by Mike Finn. Directed by Charlotte Moore. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., NYC. Through June 9.

Seeing “Pigtown” at the Irish Repertory Theatre is a little like watching a Cartier salesperson spread a handful of diamonds on black velvet for a customer.

Here, playing probably 30 roles in Mike Finn’s ill-organized but frequently moving portrait of Limerick, are no fewer than 11 of the rep’s regulars, most of them young and all of them appealing.

They are, in alphabetical order, Dara Coleman, Jarlath Conroy, David Costello, Terry Donnelly, Rosemary Fine, Laura James Flynn, Christopher Joseph Jones, John Keating, ‘din Moloney, Declan Mooney and Anto James. Some of them have more to do than others, but most have at least a moment in the dazzling light of Limerick, the ancient city where playwright Finn is a founding member of the Island Theatre Company, where “Pigtown” was first produced.

Finn’s title stems from the fact that the port city on the Shannon River was once Ireland’s most important producer of pork and pork products.

The playwright, who is also an experienced actor and director, plus co-founder of Limerick’s Umbrella Project street theater, has attempted in “Pigtown” nothing less than a full-blown, Joycean portrait of the town, embracing the entire 20th century by way of anecdotes and sketches ranging from the comic to the tragic.

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If he hasn’t entirely succeeded in creating a seamless stage entity, flowing as smoothly as the Shannon itself, and if the redoubtable Charlotte Moore, in directing the piece, hasn’t entirely managed to divest the difficult text of a few of its lassitudes, there’s still plenty here to reward the theatergoer.

It would be difficult to see “Pigtown” without visions of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” coming to mind, as indeed they must have appeared to Finn, alongside James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Where Wilder relied upon a nameless “Stage Manager” to guide his audiences through Grovers Corners, and Joyce sent Leopold Bloom careering through Dublin’s dark streets, Finn has conjured up one Tommy Clocks, beautifully played by the unfailing Jarlath Conroy, to rise from his coffin to take us by the hand for one final ramble through Limerick.

Putting it all together may require a bit of an effort by the audience, particularly those unfamiliar with the subtleties of the city’s past and the peculiarities of its inhabitants. If “Pigtown” doesn’t really have much in the way of a conventional narrative “spine,” the actors do their best to supply one.

Indeed, they perform yeoman service in the interests of knitting the whole thing together. There are some standout moments. Toward the darker-hued end of Finn’s Munster-based rainbow, it would be difficult to forget Fine’s evocation of an Austrian Jewish woman who, thanks to Hitler, finds herself a newcomer in a city she doesn’t begin to comprehend, and, alas, never will.

Equally memorable, made all the more powerful by the dignity and quiet composure with which it is rendered, is Donnelly’s unhistrionic rationalization of a marital beating, delivered through a phalanx of point-making lace curtains, and enhanced and underscored by “constable” Declan Mooney’s subsequent catalogue of wrenching spousal abuse and child brutalization.

On the lighter, less serious swing of the pendulum, Keating joins Coleman for an inspired sendup of early Irish radio, commercials and all. In the same antic vein, the elfin Moloney teams up with Laura James Flynn and actress Fine as a trio of World War I uniform seamstresses, one of whom sews a little secret into every garment.

Costelloe, Keating and Moloney unite as a trio of soccer-loving Limerick lads, while Flynn supplies a statue of the Blessed Virgin who proves willing to return a ball that happens to be thrown in her direction.

The saturnine Nolan scores as Paddy Rat, a would-be thief undone by the practical maneuvers of the Limerick Steamship Co., while the underutilized Jones provides a credible Father Kennedy. (Jones, by the way, may be remembered from earlier Rep productions in which he acted under the name Chris Carrick.)

Uniting everything is Conroy’s Tommy, a fellow “born on the stroke of midnight, 1900,” who “died as the clock struck of twelve, December 31, 1999,” according to the text.

The whole thing takes place under a massive hanging clock on which the usual numerals are supplanted by the decades, 1910, 1920, and so forth, on through the century.

Finn’s pungent manuscript is salted through with specific Limerick references, most of which, evocative though they may be, are likely to be lost on the average rep audience. Terms such as “Squeezegut Lane” and “Athlunkard Street,” “Thomondgate” and “Barrintin’s” may be unfamiliar, but, coming from this commendable collection of actors, they resonate nevertheless.

As is, “Pigtown” is not an especially well-made play, nor even a well-constructed collage, but it has its rewards, partly as a result of Finn’s insightful writing, which, in the main, supplies in verge and edge what it may lack in terms of construction.

Above all, however, it is the rich and varied confederation of actors director Moore has lured into “Pigtown” which makes it all worthwhile. To a large extent, they succeed in papering over the cracks in the material and the production.

— Joseph Hurley

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