Once in a while, a performance comes along that lifts an otherwise fairly earthbound text a notch or two, enabling it, in production, to emerge as something at least marginally more compelling than might otherwise have been the case.
Earlier this season, the great Lois Smith performed this kind of magic on a fairly ordinary Horton Foote play, “The Trip to Bountiful,” at the Signature Theatre.
Now, the Irish Repertory Theatre, with its production of the late John B. Keane’s “The Field,” is the beneficiary of just such a phenomenon in the performance being given by the Belfast-born, Los Angeles resident Marty Maguire in the role of “The Bull” McCabe.
The role, of course, won the late Richard Harris an Academy Award nomination for his galvanic performance in director Jim Sheridan’s 1990 film version of the play, but “The Field” never got a professional New York production until the Irish Rep took it on.
Keane, who like Harris died in 2002, was a gifted, well-educated writer who owned and operated a pub in Listowel, Co. Kerry and lived above it for a good part of his life.
Long after he became financially secure enough to sell the pub and move to more comfortable quarters, Keane kept the place because he felt that his best creative ideas came to him across the bar of the establishment.
The incident that drives “The Field,” the sale at auction of a modest plot of rural land, almost certainly came to him via this route, and while the play itself is a fairly formulaic melodrama, the central role is a potential powder keg for an actor with the skills, and the courage, to inhabit it fully and without compromise.
That Maguire does, in fact, have the chops to give the memory of actor Harris’s pile-driving performance a run for its money, and more, may come as something of a surprise to audiences who saw his gentle, perfectly-calibrated portrayal of the Protestant welfare clerk in the Irish Arts Center’s revival of Marie Jones’ tender comedy, “A Night in November,” only two months ago.
Even under the measured, intelligent direction of the Irish Rep’s producing director, Ciaran O’Reilly, the relatively slight Maguire might still seem a bit young for the role, that of a farmer with a grown, albeit dominated son, Maguire, however, surrounded by a solid supporting cast, comes through with flying colors.
At issue is the ownership of a relatively insignificant patch of farmland, which the Rep’s program positions near “Carriagthomond, a small village in the southwest of Ireland,” in the year 1964.
The owner of the land is a confused, fearful widow, Maggie Butler, beautifully and movingly rendered by Rep regular Paddy Croft, having inherited the contested scrap of pastureland when her husband died, Butler is now compelled by financial needs to divest herself of the holding.
The bullying McCabe, who had long rented a pathway leading to water from the widow, a necessity for anyone struggling to raise cattle, had, not so illogically, assumed that the land would come into his hands when the time for sale arrived.
Carriagthomond and environs appear to be dominated by McCabe, his relatives, and those of his wife, a detested woman with whom he has exchanged neither a word nor a touch for eighteen years, by his own account.
The firm hold The Bull exerts on his surroundings is threatened by the arrival of William Dee, an Irishman from another area, long a resident of London. Dee has read of the upcoming land auction in the public records, and sees its acquisition as a means by which he and his fragile wife might effect a return to Ireland.
The strong-willed interloper — a role into which director O’Reilly stepped just a few days before the first public performance, and which he plays like the professional he is — has bitten off more than he can chew in standing up against The Bull, which is where dramatist Keane slips into the perilous grip of flagrant melodrama.
The tales which Keane heard across his bar in Kerry were, apparently and understandably, simple stories, which is one of the reasons why his works, “Sive,” “Big Maggie,” “Sharon’s Grave,” and others, have often been dismissed as “Bog Plays,” uncomplicated narratives designed for relatively undemanding audiences.
That charge is probably true to an extent, but ‘The Field” is arguably the best example of Keane’s output, largely because of the inherent strength and originality with which the playwright crafted his brutal central character.
O’Reilly has cast “The Field” wisely and well, mainly with actors making their first appearance in an Irish Rep production.
The exception, in addition to actress Croft, is Tim Ruddy, who, in the nearly speechless role of McCabe’s son, Tadgh, makes a solid mark, particularly in the play’s later sequences. Ruddy did fine work in the Rep’s most recent revival of Brian Friel’s durable “Philadelphia, Here I Come!”
Particularly fine work is turned in by Broadway veteran Ken Jennings, here playing “The Bird” O’Donnell, an improvident, alcoholic regular at Flanagan’s Pub, with the owner, who happens also to be the auctioneer who will handle the transfer of title to the eponymous four-acre land parcel, strongly and securely delivered by Malachy Cleary, making an impressive Rep debut.
“The Field” is by no means a profound or subtle play. It might best be thought of as a solidly grounded modern folk tale, true to its modest materials and, if done as well as the production at the Irish Repertory Theatre, capable of landing with considerable impact.