L.A. did not host the entirety of “DruidSynge” — J.M. Synge’s six completed plays staged by Ireland’s Druid Theater Company in one 8½ hour swoop — during its 2005-2006 world tour. But just as a sprint and marathon offer a spectator different pleasures, a single evening of two congenial companion pieces — the brief melodrama “The Shadow of the Glen” and the full-length “Playboy of the Western World” — yields its own particular gratification. Performance skills and thematic resonance are compelling and universal, despite accents tough on American ears.
Both works traffic in Irish drama’s typical juggling act of laughs and pain, the deft blending of which is the stock-in-trade of Tony-winning helmer (and Druid founder) Garry Hynes. Her precise staging brings out parallel themes of loneliness and limited options, especially for women, such that two pieces rarely performed together prove to complement and even complete each other.
Candlelit tableau opening of “Shadow” sets a mood of inexpressible solitude, as widow Nora (Catherine Walsh) numbly goes through the obsequies for the unmourned spouse (Tom Hickey). Reprieved from a life sentence in this desolate, loveless farmhouse bereft of companionship, she suddenly sees options involving an available local farmer (Marcus Lamb) — at least until the deceased plays the trick up his sleeve.
Much hilarity ensues, craftily transformed by Hynes into a gasp as the banished Nora’s parting curse hits the old S.O.B., and us, like the lash of a whip. Stoic and free of self-pity, Walsh stunningly banks her fires until the last possible moment, and Peter Gowen adds a note of sad reason as a passing tramp offering sympathy and, in the end, solace.
A similar need to escape loneliness draws together sharp-tongued Pegeen Mike (Sarah-Jane Drummey) and the feckless vagabond Christy (Simon Boyle) whose proud confession to patricide earns him the nickname “The Playboy of the Western World.” While milking all possible laughs out of Synge’s brilliant comic conceit — the lad’s acclaimed as a warrior-hero only as long as he’s thought to be a killer — Hynes maintains full focus on the lonesome tomboy and the doe-eyed simpleton answering her prayers.
Once again a corpse rises to tell the full story; once again boasts are humbled and dreams dashed. When the full extent of Pegeen Mike’s loss hits and Drummy collapses, she might as well be Nora in the glen’s shadow, bringing the two plays full circle.
The three-acter plays like lightning in an intermissionless two hours, though it feels longer due to inconsistent audibility. Except for local spalpeens Gowen and Fergal McElherron, none of the Druids are ever wholly clear-spoken, leading to a measure of audience alienation when ears are simply forced to work too hard.
But production’s visual expressiveness is unimpeachable. A move or a gesture — Walsh’s straight back and springy step as the flirtatious Widow Quin; the scarecrow Lamb folding up accordion-style as a terrified suitor — reveals character even when words are fuzzy.
And though the same giant plaster walls surround both plays, Davy Cunningham’s exquisite lighting touches, and some shifted furniture pieces from Francis O’Connor, transform the prison cell towering over “Shadow’s” captives of misery into a virtual circus tent for the antics of the villagers of County Mayo, ecstatic over the accomplishments of their daaaarlin’ playboy.