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Synge’s Aran gem is deftly played by Irish Rep’s cast

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD. by John Millington Synge. Directed by Charlotte Moore. Starring Derdriu Ring, Dara Coleman, ‘din Moloney, James Gale and John Coating. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., NYC. Through Aug. 18.

In December 1896, John Millington Synge and William Butler Yeats met in Paris, an encounter that would have a profound effect on the course of the Irish theater in the early years of the 20th Century.

Yeats, then 36, was already mildly famous for “The Land of Heart’s Desire” and “Cathleen Ni Houlihan.” Synge, just 25 and a few years out of Trinity College, had spent four years in Germany and Italy before settling in Paris, which the older writer felt was a serious error.

“Give up Paris,” he told Synge. “You will never create anything by studying Racine. Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.”

Two years later, upon Yeats’s advice, Synge began spending time on the Islands a few miles off the Galway coast, specifically the summers of 1898 through 1902.

The one-act “Riders to the Sea,” set in the Aran Islands, came along in 1904, followed three years later by “The Playboy of the Western World,” located on what’s often called “the wild coast of Mayo,” but strongly influenced by the privately schooled, Dublin-born Protestant Synge’s exposure to the rural lives of his country’s Catholic peasants.

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When the Abbey theatre produced Synge’s masterpiece in 1907, audiences rioted for a week, feeling that the playwright had slandered Ireland’s national character, because he had pictured his village characters as shiftless cowards who could make a hero out of a rover who claimed to have murdered his father. If his comic-ironic attitude toward parricide weren’t enough, Synge had used language that was considered indelicate and unacceptable, including using the world “shift,” meaning “petticoat,” in the course of the dialogue.

Now, in the Irish Repertory theatre’s glowingly well-cast new production of the great tragicomedy, staged by the group’s artistic director, Charlotte Moore, with a deftly balanced blend of finesse and energy, it’s fairly difficult to see how this buoyant old charmer could ever have offended anyone, even conservative, pious Dubliners of 95 years ago.

The plot of “Playboy,” with its sly setups and reversals, is simplicity itself, but its language, filtered through Synge’s perceptions of the speech of the islanders in whose direction Yeats had steered him, is so rich, so flowing and so dense that it’s nearly impossible to ingest with just one sitting.

Synge wrote a Preface to “Playboy” in which he claimed that the vitality of modern drama depended on a rich language that grows spontaneously out of the living reality of a folk imagination, which he called “the rich joy found only in what is superb and wild in reality.”

“In a good play,” he wrote, “every speech should be as fully flavored as an apple or a nut.”

Most of the members of Moore’s exemplary, entirely Irish cast rise to the challenge, sometimes spectacularly and nearly always tolerably, even allowing for the Rep’s slightly cramped playing space and divided audience areas, requiring that at moments the actors find themselves, perforce, speaking Synge’s tricky, laminated speeches to hearers who are unavoidably staring at the backs of their heads.

If the audience has to work just a touch harder than usual in order to mine the rich, rewarding depths of this particular production of “the Playboy of the Western World,” then so be it. The wealth to be derived is abundantly worth the effort involved.

Derdriu Ring, so excellent in the same space in Brendan Behan’s “The Hostage” and Hugh Leonard’s “A Life,” is an ideal Pegeen Mike, with a sharp mind and an equally sharp tongue never quite succeeding in disguising the pain, loneliness and acrid sense of isolation she so clearly feels.

With her flame-hued hair cascading down her back, moving in and around the familiar confines of the shebeen and country store run by her father, she sometimes seems almost to be an actual part of the place, about to melt into the rich russets, reds and tans provided by David Raphel’s cask-and-basket-lined setting, David Toser’s costumes and Kirk Bookman’s lighting design.

As Christy Mahon, a shambling boy from another village, raised nearly to sainthood on the grounds of his mistaken belief that he has slain his shiftless father, Dara Coleman is a revelation, gentle and crafty by turns, sizing up his opportunities before making his moves.

In a role that had attracted such luminaries as Gregory Peck and Burgess Meredith in times past, and Finbar Lynch on a reasonably recent Abbey Theatre tour, the heroically molded Coleman, underplaying much of the time, makes it totally clear why Pegeen Mike and the love-starved Widow Quin are so willing to go the mat with him as the trophy.

In an offbeat bit of casting, this production’s Widow Quin is the aggressively elfin ‘din Moloney, seemingly the approximate age of Pegeen Mike, whereas the part is generally cast with someone older and rounder. By dint of energy and will, the game Moloney pulls it off.

One of the genuine strengths of Moore’s new production is the powerful presence of Rep newcomer James Gale as the late-arriving Old Mahon, bandaged, bleeding and full of fire, fully ready to punch out any languorous that might otherwise have threatened to blur the play’s final scenes.

John Coating’s Shawn Keogh is sufficiently craven and slippery to make the audience ready to reject him even before Pegeen Mike does.

Christopher Joseph James, as publican Michael James Flaherty, the heroine’s father, John Leighton as Jimmy Farrell, a nearby farmer, and David Costelloe, as a dim-witted local, provide efficient and authentic-feeling support.

As Synge’s trio of local gigglers, besotted by even a whiff of a mysterious new lad in the area, Laura James Flynn as Susan Brady, Heather O’Neill as Sara Tansey, and another recent Rep acquisition, Clodagh Bower, as Honor Blake, somehow manage to breathe a measure of fresh life into their hackneyed roles.

The original background score provided by the estimable Larry Kirwan and Black 47, though melodic and appealing in and of itself, sometimes comes across as too mournful and lugubrious for this particular occasion, summoning up a tone which feels somehow wrong for J.M. Synge’s immortal imaginings.

Filmed in 1962 by director Brian Desmond Hurst, with Siobhan McKenna, Gary Raymond and Elspeth March in the leading roles, “The Playboy of the Western World” was done once before, in 1990, by the Irish Repertory Theatre, prior to the group’s occupation of its present home.

It has also been the source of two separate and distinct Irish stage musicals, “The Heart’s a Wonder” and “Christy,” neither of which made the trans-Atlantic leap to a New York production.

The Rep’s new production is both elegant and eloquent, one of the smoothest achievements in recent Irish Repertory Theatre seasons, and a definite addition to the current theatrical scene.

— Joseph Hurley

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