Those enterprising archeologists at the Mint Theater have unearthed yet another forgotten gem in “Is Life Worth Living?” an amiable, if prickly 1933 comedy by Lennox Robinson that mocks a little Irish village for its provincial cultural tastes, while loving the impressionable villagers half to death for their endearing innocence. Familiar stalwarts from the core ensemble company engage the character comedy with knowing wit, while carefully stepping around the black hole that the two miscast leads have torn out of helmer (and Mint a.d.) Jonathan Bank’s otherwise presentable production.
Although hardly as well-positioned in the pantheon of Irish dramatists as Yeats, Shaw, Synge or O’Casey, Robinson earned a place among his peers with popular plays like “The Whiteheaded Boy” and “Drama at Inish,” as “Is Life Worth Living?” was originally titled.
A small seaside resort in Robinson’s home county of Cork, Inish was not built for tragedy, so the comic treatment is what it gets here when John Twohig (the invaluable Paul O’Brien), one of the pillars of this small town, decides the community could use some serious culture. Instead of booking his theater with the usual lowbrow fare of comedy troupes and circus acts, this misguided producer invites a legit company of classical actors to perform a season of their greatest hits — Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, among other gloomy Guses. As if that weren’t folly enough, he invites Hector de la Mare (Kevin Kilner), the actor-manager of the troupe, and Constance Constantia (Jordan Baker), his wife and leading actress, to lodge at the small hotel Twohig and his proud wife, Annie (Bairbre Dowling), own and operate.
Kilner is tall, dark and handsome; Baker is tall, red-haired and fashionably thin; and they both look swell in the exotic black outfits in which Martha Hally has costumed them. They also strike the appropriate theatrical poses when wowing the natives with their affected pronouncements on Life and Art. But while they relate well to one another as a longtime couple, they don’t reach much character depth, and their uncertain grasp of the lilting Irish accent borders on the criminal.
Left to work around the miscast leads, the ensemble’s warhorses carry on with admirable aplomb. Margaret Daly, who knows her way around the block, is especially endearing as Lizzie Twohig, who manages the seashore hotel for her brother. But dear Lizzie is only the first to come under the spell of High Drama that falls on Inish — along with ceaseless rain and unending storms — once the theater company starts performing its highbrow repertory. In due course, the entire town is drowning in morbid feelings, suicidal thoughts and homicidal behavior.
Jeremy Lawrence, another seasoned character actor, makes a hilarious foil for Lizzie as Peter Hurley, the browbeaten worm whom she fantasizes as her faithless lover of long ago.
Among the younger crowd, Leah Curney sparkles and glows as Christine Lambert, a Dublin lass with the urban sophistication to escape the pall of doom and gloom that descends on the good people of Inish once they start seeing their own lives reflected in powerful social dramas like “A Doll’s House” and “The Dance of Death” — not to mention “The Father.”