An enormous sheet lifts magically off the set at the start of “Wonderful Tennessee,” and immediately we know we’re in Brian Friel country. Joe Vanek’s no less magical set shows a disused County Donegal pier, its headland scattered with stones, lobster pots, and fishing nets. But in addition to the look, it’s the sound that remains so quintessentially Friel — the steady rhythms of the sea and passing birds punctuating that mysterious and wonderful silence we humans can barely begin to understand.
Friel and his inestimable director Patrick Mason linger on the opening tableau, as well they should, to allow audiences a chance to absorb the uniquely metaphysical world that Friel, and this play in particular, inhabit. His first original play since the Tony- and Olivier Award-winning “Dancing at Lughnasa” (he has done several adaptations in between), “Wonderful Tennessee” shows the 63 -year-old Friel enjoying a late-career creative burst to rival the period just over a decade ago when, in quick succession, he wrote “Aristocrats,””Faith Healer,” and “Translations.” (The last is enjoying a splendid concurrent London fringe revival headed for the West End.) Whether “Tennessee” will repeat the international success of “Lughnasa” is doubtful, since it’s almost too private and encoded a statement to draw a mass public. Still, as Broadway will discover this fall — the play transfers directly from the Abbey to the Plymouth, opening Oct. 17 — Friel once again shows an unerring capacity to leave a receptive audience awash in tears.
Certainly, those for whom theater means plot need warning: While the memory-play aspect of “Lughnasa” gave it at least a nominal narrative, the new play — set, like “Lughnasa,” on an August day at harvest time — is all mood, nuance, sudden turns both of rapture and despair. The ostensible story is a birthday party gone awry: Terry (Donal McCann), a gregarious bookie who has frittered away his money largely in altruistic gestures, invites two couples to join him and his depressive barrister wife Berna (Ingrid Craigie) on an outing to an island whose pagan past he recalls hearing about as a boy.
Known as “the Island of Otherness, the Island of Mystery,” it is reached via a boatman, Carlin (read Charon, the Greek ferryman of the dead), who — surprise — never shows up. Instead, the couples pass the night singing, telling stories, trading furtive affections and listening to the accordionist George (Robert Black), a throat cancer victim who long ago learned to express in music what he can no longer say in words.
George is married to Terry’s sister Trish (Marion O’Dwyer), a warm-hearted if simple woman who keeps thinking she’s in Sligo, not Donegal. (The lapse allows for Friel’s most superficial allusion to Sligo’s celebrated chronicler Yeats, whose poetry reverberates through this play.) Terry, meanwhile, flirts with his own sister-in-law Angela (Catherine Byrne, late of “Lughnasa”), a classics lecturer whose husband Frank (John Kavanagh) is both the play’s resident cut-up and, crucially, its sage. As for George’s music, it literally underscores the play, granting it that dimension of Otherness, to co-opt Friel’s own word, which the ecstatic sisterly dance early on gave to “Lughnasa.” The character has his moment to echo “Lughnasa’s” celebrated Dionysiac revel: Asked to contribute a tale to their long night’s journey into day, George responds with a section of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata played, as Trish says elsewhere, as if he were “afraid to stop.” And Black, an accordionist making his acting debut, is a revelation in the part.
By morning, the characters have moved beyond fear to Frank’s simply put “acceptance of what is”– an acknowledgement of the grace in this life which remains our best substitute for transcendence. If it all sounds too oblique by half, director Mason’s achievement is to delineate a world pitched halfway between literalism and symbolism, reality and the imagination, matched by a beautifully detailed set which nonetheless seems to float on the Abbey stage. Mason, too, is blessed with a cast among whom Byrne alone struggles to find the ecstatic abandon of a role requiring a young Vanessa Redgrave.
The play falters only in setting up juxtapositions that are often too neat. All it takes is the characters to launch into “I Want To Be Happy” for someone to announce his unhappiness. Later on, Terry’s description of a ritual dismemberment is too patly followed by the group’s comical dismemberment, so to speak, of him. But Friel recovers in time for a finish in which the group engages in its own healing ritual — the building of a cairn — that leaves this sextet of pilgrims ready to progress. It’s a quiet and resonant ending to a no less resonant, if difficult, play: the latest examination of wonder from a writer whose career has given audiences a joyous abundance of it.