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Theater Review Family drama gets revival at Seton Hall

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

AUTUMN FIRE, a family drama by T.C. Murray. Directed by John Tartaglino. Featuring Peggy Cafferty, Thereesa Riccardi, Mike Macchio and Damien Dimino. Produced by the Celtic Theatre Company. At Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J. Through Nov. 19.

"Why can’t people be kind and civil the short time they’re in this world?" It’s a good question now and it was a good question on Sept. 8, 1924, when the play that contains it, "Autumn Fire," by T. C. Murray, gave its initial performance at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.

Murray’s little known "family drama," as it is described by the Celtic Theatre company, which is giving it a strong, intelligent revival at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., may bring to mind Eugene O’Neill’s "Desire Under the Elms," or Sidney Howard’s "They Knew What They Wanted," two more famous plays in which an elderly farmer marries a girl young enough to be his daughter, encountering disapproval and hostility from his neighbors and relatives.

Director John Tartaglino has staged Murray’s earnest three-act work with commendable energy and a solid sense of pacing, taking into consideration the problems built into the circular stage at the Bishop Dougherty Student Center at Seton Hall, where the CTC has been in residence for nearly a quarter of a century, and where the group’s artistic director, Dr. James P. McGlone, is a professor of drama.

In "Autumn Fire," a girl of 22, Nance Desmond, returns to her family’s Munster cottage to look after her widowed mother. Having acquired dressmaking skills in her time away from her family’s modest County Cork home, adjacent to the farm on which her father worked, she’s convinced she’ll be able to forge a successful life.

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The farmer who had employed her late father, Owen Keegan, is a widower with two grown children, Michael and Ellen, the latter a plain, unappealing spinster of 27 who manifests an unreasoning and deep-seated loathing of the guileless Nance, which intensifies when Owen, a vigorous, virile man in his middle 50s begins to show an interest in the girl.

Owen buys a particularly spirited mare at a County Cork horse fair, a purchase that enables director Tortaglino to have him demonstrate a particularly splendid prop, a "horse measurer" in which a metal rod rises from a blackthorn cane, enabling its owner to decipher whether an animal is, say, 15 hands high at the shoulder, or 16 or whatever the reality may be.

Owen and Nance do marry, and the presence of the mare, and Owen’s efforts to break and train her, affect in unexpected ways on the lives of the Corkonians who dwell in both the cottage and the farmhouse.

When the Abbey produced "Autumn Fire," the great old theater had the advantage of an astonishing cast that included Sara Allgood, Maureen Delaney, Eileen Crowe, F.J. McCormack, and Arthur Shields and his brother Barry Fitzgerald.

The Celtic Theatre Company has drawn as usual on a talent pool composed of avid regional amateurs, Seton Hall acting students, and, as is the group’s custom, one or more professional actors. In this case the guest is the graceful, flame-haired Peggy Cafferty, who is both flawless and utterly convincing as Nance, in addition to which she manages to make it abundantly clear why Owen Keegan wants to embark on a second life with her as his bride.

Cafferty, a Chicago native transplanted to New Jersey, should be better known in Eastern Seaboard playshops than she is. She is one of the rare actresses possessing the gift of making silence and stillness deeply eloquent.

As Owen, Mike Macchio is both powerful and credible, despite the fact that he is a decade or two too young for the role, a comment that applies to the Mrs. Desmond of Joanne Tartaglino, and, perhaps less so, to Patrick Hughes’s truthful work as Owen’s brother, Morgan.

Theresa Riccardi is an especially unpleasant Ellen, while Damien Dimino as her brother, Michael, turns in a nice portrait of an inexperienced country boy attracted to a girl who has logged a measure of time in the city.

In brief roles, Joanna Tavarez and J.P. Tartaglino make swift, positive impressions as representatives of rural Cork youth of the 1920s.

In past seasons, the CTC has attracted Irish stars of the calibre of Anna Manahan, Marie Kean, Ray McAnally and John Hewitt as guest performers in the arena-like space at Seton Hall, as well as producing the work of such Irish dramatists as Walter Macken, Brian Friel, James N. Healy, Jim Moore, M.J. Molloy, and particularly John B. Keane, a particular favorite of the Celtic Theatre Company.

T.C. Murray’s "Autumn Fire" will be performed at 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday with a closing show scheduled for 2 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. The number for information and directions is (973) 761-9790.

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