As an Irish drama, John B. Keane’s “The Field” has it all. A group of articulate, hardscrabble country folk? A British outsider with no respect for local traditions? A bit of green earth to represent the flowering spirit of the people, and the threat that the ground will be paved over by the encroaching modern world? All those tropes are here. And the Irish Rep — giving the 1967 play its premiere in this country, where it’s mostly known through Jim Sheridan’s 1990 film — never distracts from Keane’s traditionalism. The entire affair is respectable beyond reproach.
Not that respectability is bad, per se. Keane’s sober writing feels vast as it charts the struggle of “The Bull” McCabe (Marty Maguire), an especially gruff Irish farmer, to buy four acres of land he’s been tending before a British businessman (Chandler Williams) can snap it up and build a factory.
The Bull’s desperation to claim the property carries heavy symbolic weight, particularly alongside the supporting cast of priests, barmen, housewives and drunks. Since they all have a distinct relationship to the man — who reads as a personification of Ireland — the other characters suggest the variety of attitudes people can have to their national identity.
Despite these grander themes, both play and production work best as a collection of small moments. Keane starts many scenes not with talk of the field, but with extended bits of local color. We might see town boozer “The Bird” (Ken Jennings) flirting with Maimie (Orlagh Cassidy), the publican’s wife, for several minutes before the larger plot starts moving, and their patter charms with its unaffected ease.
Director Ciaran O’Reilly (who subbed for Williams at the perf reviewed) gives the production an unhurried pace that allows his cast to fill their perfs with realistic detail. The entire ensemble creates a clear vocabulary of gestures and vocal mannerisms, and their choices cohere into a vivid stage community.
Cassidy’s Maimie is especially memorable as she moves through Charles Corcoran’s wooden tavern set with the stiff-legged inelegance of a woman who has poured too many drinks (and had too many children) to worry about being graceful. Yet the way she pats her hair when the Bird pays a compliment or softens her voice when addressing her timid son (Paul Nugent) reveals a tenderness that’s just as strong as her backbone.
Maguire displays complexity, too, as his voice lets the choke of conscience undercut the Bull’s angry tirades late in the play, after his actions have become extreme. The rebel becomes more engaging if he’s ambivalent over what he’s done.
And ambivalence fuels the second act, though Keane’s dramaturgy proves more ambitious than effective. He aims to evoke a moral crisis by positioning the townspeople against the local priest (Craig Baldwin) and sergeant (Laurence Lowry), who are trying to guilt the Bull into confessing his crimes.
However, the confrontation carries little visceral impact. The Bull has already been depicted as stronger and more thoughtful than the ineffectual church and state, so they are hardly his equals in a fight. The struggle between nationalist pride and moral responsibility becomes merely intellectual, with the plot unable to muster a corresponding emotional urgency.
The play’s intentions, of course, are always clear. It’s just easier to admire its efforts than be convinced by them.