The poetic ache of Synge’s heartbreaker of a comedy still asserts its ageless magic, defying a disjointed production that feels more like a pickup ballgame of unevenly matched street players than the tightly coordinated piece of ensemble acting this masterpiece demands. The despairing humor with which the Irish playwright viewed his countrymen — their cultural heritage and native wit ground down by the poverty, repression, and superstition of the period — is largely lost on director Charlotte Moore, who settles for a safe and superficial style of comedy. There are bright spots, however, from individual performers who seem to know when laughter demands a little pain.
For a production that believes in being obvious, this one at least has the sense to look good. David Raphel’s interior of a village shabeen on the windy coast of county Mayo is the soul of rusticity with its rough stone walls, fire-blackened beams, and furniture hauled out of the barn — the perfect setting for spinning a folk tale. David Toser’s threadbare costumes have the right look of wretched poverty and the long, tangled manes of the women (the contribution of Robert-Charles Vallance) complete the visual picture of beauty-starved peasant life in brutally hard times.
When tall, handsome Christy Mahon (Dara Coleman) staggers in from the road in a state of exhaustion, the villagers in this godforsaken place are all too willing to believe this stranger’s wild tale of having killed his drunken and abusive father.
Desperate as they are for any kind of stimulation, the frustrated women of the town hear the music of romantic poetry in Christy’s glib narrative of blood and vengeance, while the ossified old men goad him into further feats of physical valor. His head turned by all this attention, the clumsy boy makes himself into the man everyone wants him to be and boldly asks for the hand of the publican’s daughter, Pegeen — only to be scorned by one and all when his “dead” father appears and his heroic tale is revealed for the piece of romantic fiction it is.
The actors obviously understand the absurdity of their characters’ behavior — and consequently play their roles in expectation of the easy laughs. Although not everyone has James Gale’s (as Old Mahon) or Aedin Moloney’s (as the Widow Quin) verbal facility with Synge’s richly idiomatic language, they all launch themselves at the jaw-breaking dialect with gusto.
But only a few members of the company seem willing — or able — to dive beneath the words, into the depths of pathos in their underlying meaning.
Moloney is perhaps the most fearless. She’s a hoot in the screeching voice of the Widow Quin, so desperate to woo Christy into her bed she’s willing to blackmail everyone in. The actress adds stature to the role by allowing her character to register self-knowledge, and accept the futility of her hopes.
Gale’s sonorous voice expresses the depth at which Christy’s embattled father knows his tyrannical days are numbered. Derdriu Ring is perhaps the most interesting to watch. As the sensible Pegeen, she holds the early scenes together with her level-headed resistance to the madness sweeping the village. It seems a shame, though, that she fails to get the guidance to take her through her final scene, when she realizes what her later misguided romanticism — and rejection of reality — has cost her.
To be fair, it can’t be easy sustaining complicated emotions about a lump like Christy. Coleman’s lanky Playboy certainly cuts a nice figure, and if that’s all the play were about, Pegeen and her fellow villagers might be forgiven their blind infatuation. But as the romantic symbol of the yearnings of a people starved for poetry, drama, beauty —- something, anything to dream about and hope for — his boyish performance leaves a world unspoken and unfelt.