John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar” makes its way to Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse without the starry presence of Debra Messing, who played one of the leads on Broadway. But her replacement, Jessica Collins, admirably fills Messing’s shoes as Rosemary, the Irish woman who fights for her neighbor Anthony (Dan Donohue) in order to protect his inheritance — and then, later, their romance.
Anthony’s father, Tony (Jarlath Conroy), is convinced that his son doesn’t love the farm enough, and considers leaving it to his nephew. But Rosemary, ignoring the pleas to keep out of it made by her mother, Aoife (Robin Pearson Rose), passionately argues that a great wrong would be done if the farm is given to a stranger from America.
Sparkling with Shanley’s witty dialogue, both funny and poignant, the play opens on the day of Rosemary’s father’s funeral. “When the husband goes, the wife follows,” Anthony tells the grieving widow. “You’ll be dead in a year.”
Anthony T. Fanning’s sets offer a detailed view of the rural Irish life. Design and sound are particularly well calibrated in a scene in which rain dripping outside punctuates a fight between Rosemary and Tony over ancient wrongs, going back to an incident in which a 6-year-old Rosemary was pushed on the road by a 12-year-old Tony.
These neighbors clearly have a history and there is chemistry among the entire cast. Conroy and Donohue’s scenes, between a father and a son who initially have difficulty articulating their love for each other, are played with real tenderness.
If there’s a quibble with the Geffen production, it’s that the Irish accents in the swiftly paced dialogue are not uniformly present. But there’s pleasure to be taken nonetheless in the romance between Rosemary and Anthony that is seemingly obvious to everyone except to Anthony. When this stoic man opens up at last, the soul of a poet comes pouring out.