It’s disguised as realism, but John B. Keane’s 1959 drama “Sive” is a folk tale. And though the Irish Rep’s production could blow down the walls with its bluster, it still serves the play’s most mythical moments.
Look behind Keane’s slangy peasant prose and Charlie Corcoran’s grubby set, which smudges every glass and apron in the kitchen of an Irish farmhouse, and you’ll find this archetypal story: A wicked crone named Mena (Fiana Toibin) has married the uncle (Aidan Redmond) of a virginal beauty named Sive (Wrenn Schmidt). Sive’s parents are dead, and Mena wants her out of the house, so she schemes to get her hitched to the lecherous old ogre (Christopher Joseph Jones) down the road.
We know Mena is wicked because she’s selling the girl for a paltry sum, yet she won’t stop mentioning the money. Plus, Keane writes a wonderfully nasty scene in which she shames Sive out of protesting the marriage by telling her lies about her dead parents.
In a perf that grounds the production, Toibin avoids turning her role into a shrieking caricature. Instead, director Ciaran O’Reilly guides her toward craftier evil, so that Mena cloaks her greed with phony righteousness. Doesn’t she need to sell Sive, she asks her husband, to help pay for their livelihood? Won’t the girl be happier if she’s married? She manipulates people with such skill that it’s tempting to clap and hiss at the same time.
Her co-stars don’t match Toibin’s finesse. As they bicker over Mena’s plan, O’Reilly lets them rely on vein-popping indignation, so most scenes sound like the same loud argument. When Terry Donnelly, as Sive’s grandmother, whispers some of her scorn, she suggests the range that’s missing.
And thesps need nuance to overcome the writing’s major flaw. Keane’s script excels at grand gestures, but the moments between Big Events are often dull and illogical. There’s no reason, for instance, that Sive, her grandmother and her young suitor Liam (Mark Thornton) couldn’t just run away, except that it’s more dramatically convenient if they’re around for the symbolic climax. Therefore, they’re stuck, with little to do but complain. Flat acting only clarifies their stasis.
There is one embellishment that works. During two dramatic lulls, a pair of tinkers (Donie Carroll and James Barry) visit the kitchen, begging for food and singing Irish folk tunes. Their bleak lyrics sound eerily prophetic, so their music delivers a chill.
And Barry ups the oddness by keeping his face blank and staring into nothingness. He’s like a poltergeist carrying a drum, and he helps the tinkers seem vital.
Before the curtain, O’Reilly brings the pair out to sing on an empty set. They don’t acknowledge the audience, and when Donnelly enters to listen, she lays her head on a table. It’s a strange, potent image that hints at old traditions and dying ways, and it prepares us for the best parts of “Sive’s” sinister tale.