Lush Folk Life
by Dalt Wonk
"In the modern literature of towns, richness is found only in...elaborate books that are far away form the common interests of life. Ibsen and Zola [deal] with the reality of life in joyless and pallid words. On stage, one must have reality, and one must have joy."
This quote by playwright John Millington Synge (thoughtfully provided in the playbill to the current excellent production of The Playboy Of The Western World at Southern Rep) has the clarion ring of a manifesto, full of a confident new energy and tinged with hubris.
To understand the defiance of Synge's attitude, it is necessary to slip back to early 20th century Ireland, where the brandishing of things Irish packed a bracing insurrectionary thrill.
Synge, in his life and work, mirrored the development of this Irish consciousness. He returned from a foray into the cosmopolitan Bohemia of Paris to provincial Dublin, where the poet Yeats inspired him to go out and tell the untold story of the Irish country people in their own lilting and inventive speech.
The joy that Synge seeks to celebrate is rooted in language. He sees himself as an heir to the Elizabethans, reveling in a sea of piquant words and phrases that he says he heard on the lips of "herdsmen and fishermen," "beggar-women and ballad-singers."
There is something at once genuine and inflated about the boast, as there is in the almost too-perfect list of folk sources. For while employing the actual language of "the people," Synge creates a richer, lusher music on Irish peasant themes. And the idealization of the language enforces an idealization of the world portrayed.
Which brings us to The Playboy Of The Western World, the story of a young man named Christy Mahon who arrives at a country tavern, claiming to have killed his own father. Much of the comedy concerns the unexpected celebrity status this confers on Christy. While bathed in the heroic light of patricide, he wins the heart of the tavern owner's daughter. But all his high hopes collapse when the father turns up very much alive and seeking vengeance.
Director Perry Martin has welded an exceptionally talented cast into an ensemble that brings this fantastic, foreign world convincingly to life. They are undaunted by the demands of the verbal pyrotechnics. The words are savored, but rarely allowed to clog the action.
One of the hallmarks of the production is an attention to detail. And this is especially noticeable in that great pitfall that goes by the name of "stage business." Here the business amplifies rather than distracts - as when one of the village girls is left in her hiding place beneath a table after all her companions have fled. The manner of her belated escape is a delightful grace note to the scene and captures the fleeting comic joy of life that is the playwright's quarry.
Kimberly Patterson as Pegeen, the tavern owner's daughter, creates a complex and affecting character. She manages to be somewhat gruff and candidly sensual, while at the same time conveying an inner delicacy that makes her vulnerable to the romantic young fugitive Christy. her believability is a great aid to our acceptance of Christy, who is called upon to be both what he is (a timid, unprepossessing youth) and what he is not (a bold, impulsive rake). Ultimately, in fact, he forces us to ponder on the nature of identity - because the illusion is real as long as it lasts.
Michael P. Cahill brings a great deal of charm to this demanding role. And he manages to convey Christy's amazement and delight in the success of his ruse. Part of the fun is watching this success go to his head, so that he begins to overplay his hand.
Other standouts are Janet Shea as the salacious Widow Quin, Randy Cheramie as the formidable Michael Flaherty (Pegeen's father), Robert Montgomery as Shawn Keogh (Pegeen's pusillanimous suitor), and Doug Mundy as Old Mahon (Christy's truculent old goat of a father).
But all the other cast members (Michael Sullivan, Bob Scully, Ralph Lister, Kara Hadigan, Amy Alvarez, Robin A. Werner, and Marnie Thompson) deserve praise as well - as do Stephen G. Thurber and Anne Bendernagel, for set and costumes, respectively.
The Playboy Of The Western World is usually cited as a classic of modern theater. I have to say that while the language is often exhilarating, I find the blarney gets a bit thick from time to time - especially in the love scene and during the prolonged attempt by the villagers to apprehend Christy. But many thanks are in order for this chance to see Synge's vision appealingly brought to life.