Though a communal dance in the first act lasts just long enough to recall “Dancing at Lughnasa” two years ago, “Wonderful Tennessee” is a smaller, darker and more personal work. The raptures that flash quickly and rarely in Brian Friel’s new play only throw into high relief an emotional landscape flattened by disappointment and imbued with the yearning of three couples gathered for a birthday celebration on a deserted pier stretching out into a fog-enshrouded sea.
Indeed, with its intimate musings on subjects sacred and commonplace, “Wonderful Tennessee” most echoes Friel’s “Faith Healer”– a breathtaking work that Broadway theatergoers rejected 14 years ago despite an unforgettable star turn by James Mason.
Audiences today may have as difficult a time with “Wonderful Tennessee.” It lacks the narrative that made the stories of the five sisters in “Lughnasa” accessible.
But for those who felt frozen out of that plot — and I’m among them — having none is no great loss. Especially when the alternative is a movingly observed rite of passage that begins in drunken revelry and ends with promises of renewal that are unlikely to be kept.
The pier — imposingly, starkly beautiful in Joe Vanek’s design and Mick Hughes’ lighting — is in Friel’s fictional town of Ballybeg in County Donegal. The celebratory group has arrived on a bright, hot summer afternoon in the expectation that a boatman will take them to a nearby island barely visible through the mist.
It is a place Terry Martin (Donal McCann) recalls having visited as a child with his father, called Oilean Draoichta, which translates as Island of Otherness, or Mystery — though mystery in the sense of the unknown rather than the spooky.
Terry, the bookie whose birthday it is, reveals early on that he has bought the island. The boatman remains holed up in his distant cottage and the three couples never make it to the island.
Instead, they spend the day and night singing pop tunes and church hymns, telling stories and otherwise fortifying themselves against a future that holds little to cheer about.
Terry’s morose wife, Berna (Ingrid Craigie), begins the play with a declaration of unhappiness, though she is secretly loved by her husband’s best friend, Frank (John Kavanagh), a philosopher-writer manque. Then again, Frank’s wife, Angela (Catherine Byrne) — Berna’s sister and a classicist who delivers a mean version of “Falling in Love Again”– has had something going with Terry. And Terry’s good-hearted sister Trish (Marion O’Dwyer) is married to George (Robert Black), an accordion player dying of throat cancer who speaks eloquently with his instrument.
If this all sounds too bleak to bear, it is far from that. Friel has too much empathy for his characters and more than enough humor to make these people worth our attention.
The island becomes a symbol of both intrigue and horror: One legend had it that the island appeared briefly every seven years, but this is no Brigadoon.
Terry relates an incident from the ’30s in which 14 teenagers, returning from a Eucharistic congress in Dublin, made their way across the inlet and, undoubtedly drunk, murdered one of their own in a ritualistic sacrifice.
Spiritual yearnings weigh as heavily as romantic ones on these couples. Taking off on his own to find the boatman, Frank returns awe-struck by the vision of a dolphin dancing with “exquisite abandon” for nearly a minute above the water, he swears, calling it “my Ballybeg epiphany.” When it is George’s turn to tell a story, he launches into a passage from Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” played as if the brief life left to him depended on it.
And no sooner has Terry told the gruesome tale of the ritual murder than the other five perform their own mockery of the sacrifice, tearing off one of his shirtsleeves to add to the pier’s life-preserver stand, a none-too-subtle cruciform hung with visitors’ belts, bracelets and other mementos.
Vowing to return again as daylight breaks after their night on the pier, they know they almost certainly never will: You can see it in the disappointment that their smiles betray.
Under Patrick Mason’s elegant direction, the company is riveting; not a moment of ponderousness or sanctimony creeps into any of these indelible performances.
“Wonderful Tennessee”– the title comes from one of the tunes they sing — is beautifully written and just as beautifully delivered.