By Joseph Hurley
MOONSHINE, by Jim Nolan. Directed by Don Creedon. Featuring Johnnie McConnell and Jacqueline Kealy. At the Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st St. Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. Through Oct. 31.
One of the central issues of Waterford playwright Jim Nolan’s "Moonshine," now receiving its New York Premiere at the Irish Arts Center, is a misbegotten amateur performance of Shakespeare’s
"A Midsummer Night’s Dream," staged in the parish hall of the Protestant church in Ballintra, a seaside village Ireland.
Don Creedon’s bare bones production of "Moonshine," with its scenes jostling each other for primacy on the Irish Arts Center’s small acting space, itself at times resembles a kind of parish hall staging in a variety of aspects, not all of them intended by the director and his earnest company of actors.
"Moonshine," written in 1991, is an early play by a writer whose highly regarded recent work, "The Salvage Shop," will be revived on Oct. 13 at the Gaiety Theater as part of the 1998 Dublin Theatre Festival, bears some of the awkwardness often found in the products of at least relatively inexperienced dramatists.
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Nolan’s oddly plotted serio-comic work concerns itself with a chaotically inept village undertaker and a despairing Church of Ireland curate whose congregation has dwindled to just two faithful parishioners, motivating an apparently unavoidable closing of the church.
The error-prone mortician, McKeever, pressed into service by the impending death of the wife of the clergyman, Rev. Langton, finds himself torn between his professional duties and his doomed production of Shakespeare’s lyrical comedy, with a company of actors dwindling to a mere four, even as the show itself becomes homeless.
The cleric’s disillusioned daughter Elizabeth, who left town some years earlier after an unfortunate affair with the undertaker, returns suddenly, having been summoned, it seems, because of her mother’s expected passing.
Meanwhile, three younger members of the village community, each of them troubled and to an extent alienated, are the sole remaining members of McKeever’s "Dream" cast. The hapless mortician apparently has befriended them in their rejection by the community, which accounts for their having stood by him while the rest of the cast wandered away.
Bridget stays on because she, like Elizabeth before her, has fallen in love with the undertaker. Michael has apparently spent time in a mental hospital, although playwright Nolan leaves his situation unexplained.
Griffin, the local gravedigger and the last of the play’s troika of young outcasts, has apparently had a brief sexual encounter with a young male German tourist.
Nolan’s tone wobbles between farce and near-melodrama, at least as determined by director Creedon, who, while still attached to the Macalla Theater Company in the Bronx, did better work a season ago with Belfast writer Martin Lynch’s "Rinty."
"Moonshine" has a grotesque aspect, particularly in one scene in which McKeever, notorious for switched corpses and imprecise burials, works on the Rev. Langton’s wife, who has finally expired. Nolan provides a kind of do-it-yourself lesson in the fundamentals of preparing the deceased for burial, quoting liberally from "The Principles and Practice of Embalming," whose authors, Strub and Frederick, he considers "the unsung heroes of the mortuary."
The scene, apparently a thrust at black humor, concludes with McKeever waltzing with the gurney on which Mrs. Langton’s body rests. Unlike anything else in the text, the scene tears at whatever flimsy fabric the play might otherwise have been weaving, leaving its audience confused and detached.
Since Nolan has set his play’s two acts on, respectively, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, it seems reasonably safe to assume we are intended to view "Moonshine" at least partially in terms of redemption, rebirth and resurrection, which isn’t easy, given the endlessly wavering tenor and texture of the work as written, directed and played.
Macalla regulars Johnnie McConnell and Jacqueline Kealy do what they can with McKeever and Bridget. McConnell in particular, a natural comedian who has been so inventive and so outstanding in various Macalla shows, Creedon’s fine staging of "Rinty" included, struggles manfully with the long and ultimately tedious role of the awkward undertaker. Meanwhile, Kealy fights an uphill battle to disguise the fact she’s a bit too mature to pass for the smitten Ballintra schoolgirl she’s supposed to be, particularly since Elizabeth Whyte, as the Rev. Langton’s estranged daughter, is perhaps five years too young for her role. Instead of seeming to be Bridget’s jaded predecessor, this particular Elizabeth might easily pass for her schoolmate, or a girl a class or two ahead.
John Leighton’s grieving cleric is oddly constructed of unyielding cardboard, as is John Keating’s loveless Griffin, a role that virtually redefines the term "unplayable".
In a role that might have very easily come across nearly as badly, that of which the mentally damaged Michael, A. Ryan McGuigan somehow makes a recognizable human being out of a character the playwright really didn’t bother to write, beyond giving him a kind of quick sketch outline. McGuigan is particularly solid in the "Dream" scenes, in which Shakespeare’s words somehow infuse the broken boy with renewed life.
If "Moonshine" carries a rewardingly serious undercoating, the present production hasn’t found and clarified it. At least, not yet.