Druid Theater Company’s self-constructed trilogy of plays by beloved, but frequently misunderstood, Irish playwright John B. Keane reaches an anticlimactic end with “The Year of the Hiker.” This 1964 play is simply not of the same quality as the previous two staged by Garry Hynes. The director and her inarguably top-notch creative team and cast may be trying to embrace the script as ambiguous and multilayered, but the result is a production that sends out multiple and contradictory messages.
Hynes’ productions of Keane’s two earliest plays, “Sive” and “Sharon’s Grave,” were heroic and moving acts of theatrical excavation and renovation. The complexity and vision brought out in Keane’s writing by those stagings does not tend to shine through in the amateur and student contexts in which his work has most frequently been seen. By playing “Sive” as full-blown tragedy, and “Sharon’s Grave” as a bizarre, expressionist melodrama, Hynes revealed Keane as a prescient and profound critic of the conservative brutality of Irish rural life.
“Hiker’s” strange story concerns an Irish patriarch, Hiker Lacey, who deserted his family 20 years ago and returns on the day of his daughter Mary’s wedding, knowing he’s dying and looking for forgiveness. In the meantime, the family has become prosperous, thanks to the precocious leadership of eldest son Joe, who’s running the farm with the stoic support of his mother, Kate, and spinster aunt, Freda.
The father’s specter has continued to hang over the family, though. There is considerable buildup in the first several scenes, giving Hiker’s eventual entrance — dirty, hairy and in tatters — a sense of supernatural inevitability.
Hynes and her team, however, seem resistant to fully embracing the hyperdramatic elements of the play, following instead its more conventionally melodramatic currents as a character study and portrait of an unconventional 1960s Irish family (which turn out to be its most engaging and memorable aspects).
The exaggerated size of Francis O’Connor’s country-kitchen set, with a horizontal slice cut out of the back wall showing ever-changing weather, certainly seems to encourage viewers to see this situation as larger-than-life and connected to patterns and systems beyond the characters’ control.
Several of the actors play in a style that edges on caricature: Garrett Lombard’s frequent arms-folded-over-chest posture accentuates his strapping physique as Joe; Aaron Monaghan’s capering makes sure we know little brother Simey’s the devilish one; and Sarah Jane Drummey’s mincing gait and footlong false eyelashes turn her Mary into a likable but spoiled princess.
Marie Mullen and Catherine Walsh, however, play it completely straight as Kate and Freda, movingly so: They seem fully committed to the lives they’ve ended up with, but also are both clearly haunted by loss and regret.
Which brings us to the most curious, and eventually troubling, aspect of the play: Keane’s depiction of gender. Repeated comment is made early on about the unusual structure of the household and Freda’s status as replacement spouse to her sister; Walsh’s flat, tight hairstyle and costumes that play up the mannish aspects of her willowy physique underline this idea.
As the play progresses, it seems increasingly likely (and welcome) that Keane will not explain fully why Hiker left in the first place; the character seems to be framed as a symbol of male weakness, irrationality, or resistance to traditional Catholic values. But in the final scenes, an explanation does appear: He left because Freda was in love with him, and refused or was unable to renounce her place in the household. Amazingly, Freda admits this, and her apology is the narrative fulcrum on which the final moments of forgiveness and renunciation turn.
There is more than a touch of misogyny in the suggestion that the family’s unhappiness was a woman’s fault all along. In its tonal and stylistic confusion, the production fails to contextualize this plot point as the result of a larger cultural problem or situation.
In retrospect, Hynes’ rediscovery of John B. Keane began not with these Druid productions but with an outstanding, uncompromising staging of his “Big Maggie” at the Abbey Theater five years ago. There is a clear thematic and stylistic continuum through that production and the first two Druid stagings. “The Year of the Hiker,” in this context, feels like an underpowered afterthought.