Nothing could support that perhaps outdated point of view as emphatically as at least two of the epistolary novels by the late John B. Keane, ?Letters of a Love-Hungry Farmer? and ?Letters of a Matchmaker.?
Those volumes, with emphasis on the former, have been synthesized into a one-actor stage vehicle by Des Keogh, who plays the eponymous old isolate John Bosco McLane and a handful of men and women who play mainly fleeting roles in his cold, unrewarding life.
Actor Keogh, perhaps best known in Ireland as a revue performer, often partnering with the great Rosaleen Linehan, and as the host of a popular RTE radio program featuring light classical music, has titled his deft arrangement of Keane?s yarns simply ?The Love-Hungry Farmer.?
McLane?s world is described in the Irish Rep program as ?a rural cottage and surrounding areas in County Kerry in the fifties.? Pinpointing the action as having taken place nearly half a century ago, long before the much-vaunted Celtic Tiger was even a suckling cub, strengthens its ties to the ideas put forth in ?The Vanishing Irish.?
Writer Keane, as is widely known, lived above the unpretentious pub he owned and operated in the village of Listowel, Co. Kerry, and was often quoted as admitting that most of his work was inspired by things he heard and overheard in the establishment.
It?s easy enough to imagine poor, sad McLane leaning on Keane?s bar and pouring out his tales of loneliness and recounting the frustrating details of his disastrous encounters with the women he desired but was unable to reach.
Keogh did ?The Love-Hungry Farmer,? in virtually the same form, in the Irish Repertory Theatre?s subterranean space, the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre, several months ago. The tall, lanky actor seemed almost threatened by the small theater?s low ceiling.
By contrast, he seems more comfortable on the Rep?s main stage, framed by an appealing setting with a wall of rough stones curving away under a pale sky hovering over a range of hazy Irish hills.
McLane?s unadorned dwelling comprises mainly a few chairs, a table, a clothes rack and a sideboard with plates tilted upward for display, a variety of cups hanging on hooks and a bottle of Paddy?s, nearly full, standing in prime position on the middle shelf.
Whether the bottle, with its prominently displayed, easily read label, is a venture into product placement on the part of the Rep or an insight into the farmer?s character is left unspecified.
Keogh gives us quick, slightly facile sketches of a little cluster of Keane?s people, ranging from the matchmaker Dickie McDickie to a local priest with a surprisingly liberal, almost rakish attitude where McLane?s sexuality is concerned.
The matchmaker and several of the female candidates he presents to the farmer played a major role in a different adaptation of the Kerry writer?s material, which Keogh performed a couple of seasons back, with Anna Manahan as his partner. The title of that venture, logically enough, was ?The Matchmaker.?
If Keogh?s briefer portraits sometimes seem slightly glib, it?s probably a result of the actor?s lengthy experience in Irish musical vaudeville, where quickly realized, fleeting impressions are the norm.
John Bosco McLane, is, of course, the heart of the matter and Keogh saves his most serious attention for his portrayal of the farmer, whom he presents as a constricted, not-entirely-likeable individual.
The actor is so candid and so honest about revealing the more negative aspects of the character?s nature that, in fact, it soon becomes all too clear why McLane, whom the priest describes as a lifelong ?chastitute,? has so little success with women, of whom, under everything else, he is paralyzingly terrified.
Some of Keane?s secondary and tertiary characters, a Peeping Tom named Goggles Finn, and another individual who employs an inflatable, life-size rubber image of a woman, verge on the scatological, settling for quick, easy laughs where a bit of honest introspection might have proved more valuable in the long run.
Des Keogh, beyond doubt a skilled, versatile performer, as flexible as he is agreeable, appears to have taken on a slightly fragile aspect since he last appeared at the Irish Rep. The result, perhaps, is that it?s just a bit difficult to envision him as a working farmer, tilling the fields or looking after animals.
?The Love-Hungry Farmer? will, without question, please the Irish Repertory Theatre?s core audience, meanwhile saving as a reminder what a canny writer John B. Keane, who died in Listowel on May 30, 2002, really was.