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Theatre in Review: Three Small Irish Masterpieces (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Colin Lane, David O'Hara, and Clare O'Malley in "The Pot of Broth." Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Cheers to the Irish Rep for this brief, beguiling trio of works by three artists who were present at the birth of Irish drama. (The plays were written between 1903, when it was founded as the Irish National Theatre Society, and 1907, when The Playboy of the Western World, by John Millington Synge, caused scandalized audiences to riot.) Under the incisive direction of Charlotte Moore and performed by a nimble cast, all three pieces -- two of which are real rarities -- are given the best possible hearing.

Anyone with an interest in the Abbey Theatre and its incomparable founders won't want to miss the chance to see the first two offerings. "The Pot of Broth," by William Butler Yeats "in collaboration with Lady Gregory," is a wry little comedy of country life, in which a tramp invades a farmhouse and beguiles the couple who live there by producing a stone that, he claims, can turn hot water into soup. He proceeds to fleece them of every foodstuff in the house, using a combination of flattery and flimflam that W. C. Fields might envy. ("He's a gifted man," the farmer says, and that isn't the half of it.) It's fun watching David O'Hara, as the tramp, play his victims like a piano, but the standout is Clare O'Malley, as Sibby, the easily gulled farmer's wife; convinced by the tramp that she has a siren-like effect on the local men, she announces to her spouse, triumphantly, "I always knew I was too good for you!"

Rather darker is Lady Gregory's "The Rising of the Moon," in which an Irish sergeant, working for the British army of occupation, meets "a ragged man" while guarding a harbor. The man claims to be peddling ballads to the seamen in port, but an Irish rebel is on the loose and no one is to be allowed near the ships. What follows is an increasingly tense and suspenseful back-and-forth between the two men. Clearly, the ragged man is harboring secrets, but, teasingly, the line dividing these two isn't as clear-cut as it first appears. Colin Lane and Adam Petherbridge transform this encounter into a cagey dance of suspicion and evasion.

The most famous of the plays, John Millington Synge's "Riders to the Sea," is a stunningly compact tragedy, a stark picture of Irish rural life governed by poverty and at the mercy of the elements. Maurya, an aging matriarch, has already lost her husband and four of her six sons to the sea; before the play is over, the others will be lost as well, leaving her with her two daughters, Nora and Cathleen. (In this time and place, there is no greater tragedy; quite apart from the emotional losses, the three women are, effectively, ruined.) Synge wastes no time in laying out the brutal facts; consider how he handles the business of the two sisters examining a washed-up bundle of clothing to see if it belongs to their missing brother. Equally taut is the departure of the remaining son, Bartley, who promises to return in a few days, having sold off one of the family's horses. Convinced that he, too, will somehow be lost to her, Maurya turns her back on him; he tentatively places his hand on her shoulder, then departs, saying, "The blessing of God on you." It's a statement that contains a world of pain and regret.

Moore handles this piece with a bracing honesty, and she has smartly cast as Maurya Terry Donnelly, who invests the character with a kind of monumental dignity. She is especially gripping when, having returned from running after Bartley and offering the farewell she denied him, she enters, terrified, having seen a vision that sets up the revelation that this family has been destroyed. With a face that resembles a death mask, she delivers her final lines ("No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied") with a terrible resignation.

Moore has enlisted what could be called the Irish Rep A Team to design the production. James Morgan has come up with a detailed cottage interior -- note the carefully tucked-away crucifix near the window -- that is eminently suitable for both "The Pot of Broth" and "Riders to the Sea." A simple adjustment by Michael Gottlieb's lighting makes it disappear for "The Rising of the Moon"; he also provides distinct daytime looks for the first and third plays, and a lovely moonlight wash for the middle offering. Linda Fisher's costumes appear to have been carefully considered down to the last detail.

Three Small Irish Masterpieces is a golden opportunity to catch the work of writers who, these days, are more famous than produced. In addition to being eminently stageworthy, they are living remnants of a literary movement that changed Irish culture forever -- and without which there might not be an Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan. This is one title that you can take at face value. -- David Barbour

(12 March 2018)

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