Love’s Labor’s Not Lost: Outside Mullingar is somewhat mired in its continental premiere.
A poetic riff on loneliness, self-abnegation and love, John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar bristles with rural Irish eccentricity and romance. But then Shanley is an old pro, with both a Pulitzer and a Tony to his name for Doubt (2004) and an Oscar for Moonstruck (1987). In its first European production outside the West End, his newest play is a lyrical chamber piece, well paced and full of pathos, ideal for the intimate stage of Vienna’s English Theatre. By the fall of the curtain on opening night, the audience joined in an audible sigh of fulfilled longing.
The play opens with classic Irish gloom, as the newly widowed Aoife (Stephanie Fayerman) visits her elderly neighbor, Tony Reilly (Robert Whelan) and his son Anthony (Peter Ormond) to ruminate over their own eventual demise. Fortified by the requisite pot of tea, without which no Irish christening, marriage or burial is complete, their grief is buoyed by humor.
Acknowledging she’ll be dead within a year, Aoife is only too happy to itemize her woes: “I’ve got the pacemaker on board,” she says proudly. “You can feel it with your hand. It sticks half out of my chest right where I used to keep the smokes.” “Half a year,” retorts Tony.
It doesn’t take long for Aoife to broach the subject of who will inherit the neighboring farms when she and Tony die.
Astonishingly, Tony reveals that he does not intend to leave his farm to his unmarried, childless and somewhat whimsical son Anthony, who has been dutifully working the land since youth, but will instead sell it to an American nephew.
But Tony the patriarch isn’t the only one with a say in the matter. Aoife’s daughter, Rosemary (Millie Reeves), still appears to have a bone to pick with her neighbor’s son: Thirty years before, a 13-year-old Anthony had pushed the six-year-old Rosemary to the ground just outside his house, along a narrow road abutting their respective farms. If Anthony has forgotten, Rosemary has not. By this 40 meter strip of land hangs the tale.
Now owned by Rosemary, who as a girl once planned to use it for revenge, she now finds herself taking issue with Anthony’s treatment – a clear sign that beneath a past grudge there is now affection. But the deus ex machina lies hidden in Tony’s past motive for selling the land, bringing the plot full circle for this hapless couple full of nameless yearning.
While the play throbs with poetry, rhythm and humor, it seeks to soar even higher by means of a wildly eccentric admission proclaimed by Anthony at the climax, seemingly coming from nowhere. If this confession is a poetic device, then it needs more than just to be said – lacking context of any kind, it only elicits confusion.
The actors – especially Reeves – play with plenty of heart. But there is little help from the clunky set: Where the play calls for inclement weather, we have a bright tourist brochure backdrop; Outside Mullingar’s lyricism needs to find its balance in the grit of its sodden Irish peat. The score is inconsistent with the action; the direction static and two-dimensional, not using the stage to its fullest.
They save much though, conveying us well through bleak houses and landlocked tedium, daring to delve in fields hearing voices, giving folk superstition equal sway with their Catholic faith. This is a beautiful, romantic play.
It is never too late to love.
Through Apr 22 ex. Sun, 19:30, Vienna’s English Theatre
(no performances 14 – 17 April)