It may not be as dramatic as “Doubt” or as funny as “Moonstruck,” but John Patrick Shanley has not written a more beautiful or loving play than “Outside Mullingar.” The rural dialect spoken on the farms and villages of Ireland translates into prickly poetry under Doug Hughes’ helming of this bittersweet family drama about the unresolved issues between cantankerous parents and their obstinate offspring. Playing neighbors whose families are caught up in a bizarre feud over a contested strip of land that separates their two farms, Debra Messing and Brian F. O’Byrne are a match made in heaven.
The most colorful language in this chatty play is uttered by Tony Reilly, a crabby old coot played to a fare-thee-well by Peter Maloney, a stage lifer who has earned this meaty role. Although he’s pretty much relinquished all the farm chores to his son, Anthony (O’Byrne), this domestic tyrant still rules the roost from his battered armchair in the kitchen. (If the place weren’t such a housekeeping disaster, you could move right in to John Lee Beatty’s meticulous replication of a farmhouse kitchen.)
Tony is none too pleased to learn that Anthony has invited their next-door neighbors, Aoife Muldoon (Dearbhla Molloy) and her daughter Rosemary (Messing), to stop in for a visit. Having just buried her husband that morning, Aoife could use some cheering up. But the grieving widow isn’t getting any sympathy from Tony. “When the husband goes, the wife follows,” he warns her. “You’ll be dead in a year.”
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Aoife may have one foot in the grave, but in Molloy’s tough-as-boots perf, her native wit and tart tongue have kept her in fighting shape. The old lady is not so feeble, after all, once she and Tony resume their ongoing, bitterly funny battle over a tiny patch of land that plays a big role in their history. But in a smart about-face, the elders gang up on Anthony, blaming him and his generation for everything from the sorry state of the Irish economy to the national soccer team’s poor showing in the Olympic Games.
Although all this negativity has worn him down, what really stings Anthony is his father’s threat to bequeath the family farm to a relative who lives in America.
“You don’t love it” is Tony’s devastating assessment of his son’s feelings about farming. “You don’t have joy.” To which cold sentiments Anthony responds: “Some of us don’t have joy. But we do what we must.”
That exchange, among many like it, smartly captures the harsh beauty of Shanley’s dramatic voice. Born into the rigors of farm life, his farmers speak a blunt, earthy idiom. But being Irish, they can’t help themselves from putting a lyrical spin on their dark thoughts and bleak language.
As much hurt by his father’s rejection as angered by the loss of his birthright, Anthony stumbles out of the house and into the rain. Here he finds Aoife’s daughter, Rosemary, a fiercely independent free spirit in Debra Messing’s amazing perf. Hot-tempered and “stubborn to the point of madness,” according to her secretly proud mother, this redheaded fury is pacing the ground, smoking her dead father’s pipe and raring for a good fight when Anthony steps into firing range.
The sparks between these two would keep a bonfire blazing through the night. But they’re Irish and stubborn to the core, so for all their sexually fraught sparring (“Your eyes have pagan things in them sometimes,” Rosemary tells Anthony), it still takes them another year and one last breathtaking scene before they find each other.
It’s a well-spent year, dramatically speaking, because Shanley makes use of it to bring father and son together in a reconciliation scene so tenderly written and beautifully played that it would melt a stone.