Fickle Sway Of Public Opinion At Heart Of Solid Playboy
by Dominic P. Papatola
The Playboy Of The Western World is about a lot of things, but in these days, perhaps it's about nothing so much as the power of perception.
John Millington Synge's 1907 masterwork, which is receiving a solid staging at Southern Repertory Theatre, was originally conceived as a paean to the working class of the Irish countryside - hard-scrabble folk for whom life didn't change much and the smallest excitement could occupy an entire town. The resonance for audiences in its native land probably had to do with the way the show rendered familiar characters.
For an American audience, there's no such familiarity - it's difficult to tune the ear to the idiosyncratic Irish brogues, and the rituals and traditions sewn into the play's action are foreign as well. But like all enduring works of theater, Playboy manages to reach from back in its own time and speak to contemporary audiences.
Depending on whose perspective you believe, Playboy's title character - an unassuming lad named Christy Mahon - is either an ungrateful, chowderheaded doofus about as popular with the ladies as dandruff, or a suave, athletic sophisticate who makes James Bond look like Lou Costello.
The former opinion is held by Christy's father, who's brought to the stage with a crusty sense of menance and a humor borne of intimidation by Doug Mundy. Old Mahon finds himself on the receiving end of a nasty blow from a spade (a "loy," in the parlance of the play) struck by his son, who leaves him for dead and flees. The more positive image of Christy comes from just about everyone in the village he stumbles into after what is later revealed to be a botched patricide.
So which is the real Christy? Michael P. Cahill gives the role such a skilled and even reading that it's difficult to tell. When he wanders bedraggled into the Flaherty's family's pub, he looks a little weaselly, dorky even - a little lost leprechaun. When the assembled crew of hicks wedge his story out of him, he's judged to be a man of great bravery and is offered the job of keeping watch over the pub and the proprietor's daughter, Pegeen Mike.
As Christy's story spreads and grows, so does Cahill's character. When, in the second act, he again relates the now-aggrandized story to a gaggle of starry-eyed village girls, he seems almost to be busting out of his clothes with the confident telling. The leprechaun is gone, replaced by a giant of a man who wins all the contests at the village fair and is second only to St. Patrick himself in the eyes of the townsfolk. Even the no-nonsense Pegeen Mike (in an unadorned but winning performance by Kimberly Patterson) falls under his spell.
When the nowhere-near-dead Old Mahon shows up with a dent in his head and a nasty attitude, Christy tries to finish the job he'd started a fortnight ago. But the same townsfolk who hailed him as a hero when they heard about the act are ready to string him up when they witness it firsthand.
Synge's indictment seems to be of these people, who create a hero and are then prepared to destroy him when he doesn't measure up to the fantasy idol they themselves concocted. In these days of flavor-of-the-month celebrity, it's oddly comforting to realize that the masses were a gullible and fickle lot long before Jerry Springer was born.
Cahill gets the last bow, and while his ingenuous performance is amiable and convincing, it's more because of his reactions than his actions. Christy - most especially as Cahill plays him - is a passive protagonist, whose success or failure hinges on his castmates pushing him in the right directions.
That support comes in ample measure in some yeasty supporting performances led by Janet Shea's lusty turn as scheming Widow Quin, the only person who sees Christy for what he is and accepts him anyway. Randy Cheramie provides a larger-than-life robustness to his role as Pegeen Mike's father. On the other end of the spectrum, Robert M. Montgomery gives Shawn Keogh - Pegeen Mike's long-suffering suitor - an endearing kicked-puppy quality.
Michael P. Cahill, Randy Cheramie, and Kimberly Patterson appear in Southern Rep's production of The Playboy Of The Western World.
Playboy stands test of time at Southern Rep