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Theatre in Review: The Suitcase Under the Bed (Mint Theater Company/Theatre Row)

A. J. Shively and Sarah Nicole Deaver. Photo: Richard Termine.

"Most people have a crack in their hearts," remarks one of the characters in "Holiday House," one of the sterling quartet of one-acts being presented under the umbrella title The Suitcase Under the Bed. Their author, Teresa Deevy, was a specialist in taking the measure of such fissures, their precise dimensions and the pain they cause. In recent years, The Mint has staged three full-length works by this mid-twentieth-century Irish playwright to great acclaim; now we know that her shorter plays are equally entrancing.

Deevy went deaf while at university, but she never lost her ear for dialogue; she also retained a sharp, almost clinical, eye for the sadness lurking under the surface of everyday lives. Three of the plays on the bill focus on the price her characters pay, denying their true feelings, to live in the world. Annie, the central figure of "The King of Spain's Daughter," is a wild, impulsive lass who acts out against her abusive father, scandalizing him by running around with any available male. Before the play is over, he will force her to make a terrible choice. In the acidly amusing "Holiday House," a middle-aged woman and her adult children gather at a vacation villa by the sea, but there are storm warnings on the horizon, as one of the sons has married his brother's former fiancée. What follows is an exercise in elegantly polite sniping, capped by an awkward lovers' reunion, all of it observed, hawklike, by the spinster sister who is much too emotionally invested in the play-by-play. The standout piece, "In the Cellar of My Friend," begins with a young woman arriving at the home of her beau the morning after they have pledged their love. Nothing is what it seems, however: For one thing, the young man has vanished; for another, his father is eager to declare his intentions. What follows is a series of carefully rolled-out bombshells that had audience members murmuring in shock at the performance I attended. (The curtain raiser, "Strange Birth," a romance between a maid and a postman, is charming, but not really in the same league as the other three.)

Rarely, if ever, evoking the Roman Catholic Church and its outsize influence on Irish society, Deevy nevertheless traces its influence in the ways her characters aim for fulfillment and settle for soul-killing security. In "The King of Spain's Daughter," Annie is torn between the father she cannot please and the young swain who doesn't arouse her passions. Belle, the heroine of "In the Cellar of My Friend," learns how quickly an apparent declaration of love can unravel, driving her to make a surprise declaration that drastically reshapes her future. The vacationers in "Holiday House" pretend that everything is perfectly lovely, but the strain shows, with Hetty, the unattached sister, eager to pounce on the slightest trace of malice or regret.

As always, Deevy specializes in a kind of plainspoken poetry that packs plenty of feeling, mixed with barbed wit, into her characters' economical exchanges. "It's my business to be pleased, no matter what happens," says Patricia, the overlooked spinster who runs her brother's household in "In the Cellar of My Friend." "Your husband's in love with his car; once that happens your day is over," remarks one aggrieved wife to another in "Holiday House." "You're a pack of blind owls," says Annie in "The King of Spain's Daughter," dismissing the plodding men in her life. When, Jim, who loves Annie, tries to intervene in a dispute between her and her father, Peter, the latter says, softly but savagely, "Does she belong to you?" The words are delivered with a quiet force that stun with their cruelty.

Jonathan Bank's staging is filled with little details that speak volumes. Patricia embraces the radiantly happy Belle, thereby hiding from the younger woman her worried frown; Hetty's extended before-lunch prayer of grace, which leaves one of her brothers to furtively pick at this food; an impromptu family tea party that becomes a tableau of barely suppressed discomfort; Annie embracing a casual lover in an archway while Jim looks on, his face clouded by jealousy and shame. In a cast loaded with graceful performances, the biggest impression is arguably made by Sarah Nicole Deaver in a trio of roles: Belle, the all-too-quickly embittered innocent in "In the Cellar of My Friend;" the fuming, judgmental Hetty in "Holiday House;" and the rebellious, yet trapped, Annie in "The King of Spain's Daughter." (The sight of her in the last play, frantically pulling up her knee socks as she hears her father's approach, is especially revealing.) Also making fine contributions are Cynthia Mace as the perpetually woeful Patricia in "Cellar" and as a cold-eyed observer in "King of Spain;" Ellen Adair as a cheerful housemaid, jittery about the prospect of romance, in "Strange Birth;" and Aidan Redmond as Peter in "King of Spain," regarding his daughter with a disturbing mix of censure and possession.

Vicki R. Davis' sets use the minimum number of pieces necessary to sensibly and evocatively call up four separate locations; they are aided by Zach Blane's lighting, which provides a series of attractively color-washed skies. Andrea Varga's costumes are especially impressive in outfitting the well-heeled inhabitants of "Holiday House." Jane Shaw's sound design combines Celtic-tinged folk songs with such effects as chimes, seagulls, and auto engines. She also provides a stage mic for the recitation of a pair of poems, by Padraic Colum and St. John of the Cross, that are heard during the changeovers between plays.

"I wouldn't like that to happen, to be caught up with this loving business," says the housemaid in "Strange Birth," but, really, she could be speaking for Deevy's characters, most of whom, calculating their chances for happiness and fulfillment, end up shortchanging themselves. Again, one is amazed that this fine playwright was allowed to slip into obscurity for so long. The title of the program alludes to the fact that Bank found these plays, tucked away and forgotten, in the home still occupied by members of the playwright's family. As it happens, there was a treasure trove in that suitcase under the bed. -- David Barbour

(25 August 2017)

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