Adapter-director Conall Morrison brings a contemporary physical approach to a minor classic of mid-century Irish fiction with splendidly theatrical results in "Tarry Flynn," a hit from earlier this year that the Abbey Theater has revived for the usually moribund pre-Christmas slot. Morrison fully fleshes out the complexities and ambiguities of Patrick Kavanagh's autobiographical novel, bringing to life the intrigues and (sometimes too viscerally) the longueurs of rural Irish life in 1935.
The first scene sets the tone: On Francis O’Connor’s playland set of ramps and runways, a rustic group of men stomp out a joyous rhythm that turns menacing when a lone woman appears onstage. The men surround her, and what seemed a barn dance turns into an act of violence.
The play’s depiction of the title character is no less layered. Tarry is a goofy, lovable dreamer who is also something of a wastrel. At 27 and still living at home, he writes poems and enjoys the devotion of his widowed mother while his three younger sisters carry the brunt of the chores.
The cast of 29 plays out the action in a story-theater style, switching between dialogue and narration, with the non-principals playing multiple characters as well as the odd chicken or cow. The physicality of the performances — particularly that of James Kennedy’s Tarry, who looks like he’s about to leap across the stage even when he’s standing still — is particularly welcome in a country where from-the-neck-up acting is still the norm. The excellent, kinetic choreography is by rising star David Bolger, who also provides the dancing in the upcoming film of “Dancing at Lughnasa.”
As does the book, the play lopes along from minor incident to minor incident: The villagers go to mass; Tarry gropes a local farmer’s daughter but secretly longs for Mary, the richest, prettiest girl in town; two of Tarry’s sisters try to make a new life in a nearby city but come back unsuccessful. At a town-hall dance, Tarry’s waffling backfires as his best friend, Eusebius, sweeps his adored Mary away.
The tone shifts radically with a stunningly literal deus ex machina, as a man walks down the back wall into the Flynns’ kitchen. It is long-lost Uncle Petey, the family’s other dreamer and the incarnation of Tarry’s artistic future. The ending is both mournful and joyous, an acknowledgment of the inevitability of change and loss, but an affirmation of the artist’s ability to transform even the darkest experience into something larger than itself.
This celebratory but unflinching investigation of Irishness certainly confirms Morrison’s status as the country’s best young director. The production seems perfectly timed for a rapidly modernizing Ireland, but its length of nearly three hours might wear on some. Negotiations are under way for an Edinburgh Festival staging next year.