The Mint Theater Company could raise some coin by giving tutorials on the proper way to mount a production of a long-lost play. “Wife to James Whelan,” written in 1942 by the Irish dramatist Teresa Deevy, gets the Class-A treatment: fully staged production; well-researched program notes; post-performance discussions; audio and video recordings; play readings; publication of the scribe’s collected works; and a university-sponsored academic conference. Given this impressive launch, it’s a pity that the play itself — about a man’s revenge on the woman who rejected him when they were both young and poor — is a pedestrian piece of writing.
Much of the Mint’s research focuses on the fact that the Abbey Theater, which had already produced six of Deevy’s previous plays, including her best-received work, “Katie Roche,” chose to reject this one. The trauma of the rejection, so the backstory goes, sent the then-popular scribe (who, as a young woman, had lost her hearing from Meniere’s disease) into a professional funk from which she never recovered.
The suggestion is made that the conservative new management at the Abbey might have nixed “Wife to James Whelan” because of Deevy’s unorthodox treatment of marriage. But it’s also possible that they were just exercising good aesthetic judgement.
The plot of the play, which begins in Kilbeggan, a small town in a depressed county of rural Ireland, is certainly promising. Helmer (and Mint a.d.) Jonathan Bank knows how to cast for type, and dialect coach Amy Stoller has taken care to validate the accents. Life is hard in this part of Ireland, so thanks go to the staff of designers for honestly conveying but softening the harshness of the setting.
The charismatic James Whelan (played by the distinctly un-charismatic Shawn Fagan) has won a coveted job transfer to Dublin. Confident that his own-true-love Nan Bowers (Janie Brookshire) will await his return — but making no formal declaration of love to secure her commitment — the cocky fellow is hurt and angered to learn that Nan has already lined up his successor.
Seven years later, Whelan is back in Kilbeggan and operating the Silver Wings Motor Services, a one-bus transport operation that confers much status on him as a successful entrepreneur. Now widowed, a much-humbled Nora re-enters Whelan’s life to beg for a job to support her child. While Deevy is stingy with the dialogue to deepen her character, Brookshire has a quiet presence that earns respect for Nora — until she does something so foolish that Whelan turns on her in a rage.
It’s touch and go whether these two proud people will ever unbend and thrash out the conflicting passions that have made them mortal enemies. But Deevy seems determined to make their stubborn refusal to speak their minds (as well as their hearts) the point of her piece.
Given their obstinate willfulness, it makes sense — but gives no pleasure to an audience — that speeches are awkward and communication is hopeless. Frustrated beyond endurance, Whelan is reduced to a raging tyrant. Nora is so proudly obstinate, she’s practically mute. And all the secondary characters in this drama are so in awe — or fear — of their irascible boss that they carefully measure every word.
While an Irish play that lacks a lyric tongue would appear to be a contradiction in terms, that seems to be what Deevy has written. And while the Mint deserves credit for rescuing a lost playwright from oblivion, it’s not at all certain from this play that it was a worthwhile effort.