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Theatre in Review: The Naturalists (Pond Theatre Company/Walkerspace)

Sarah Street, John Keating. Photo: Richard Termine

The Naturalists introduces us to Jaki McCarrick, whom we will surely be hearing from again, such is her gift for singular, sharply drawn characters and dialogue with a touch of the lyric about it. (The Pond Theatre Company, which focuses on British and Irish playwrights who haven't been seen in New York, has done good work in bringing her to our attention.) However, the play before us is a slightly strange thing, suffering from a pronounced case of split personality. So opposed are the moods of its two acts that at times it's like seeing two separate -- and diametrically opposed -- dramatic works. Cognitive dissonance, rather than spellbinding, is the order of the day.

The first act is casual, elliptical, almost uninterested in drama -- yet it demands one's fullest attention, as many key plot points are embedded in passing comments and throwaway lines. Francis and Billy Sloane, middle-aged brothers and farmers, pass their days in a remote corner of the Irish countryside, tolerating each other out of necessity as much as affection. Billy raises animals; Francis handles crops and teaches ecology or biology to local students. At least, I think so: McCarrick is no fan of exposition, assuming that one will pick up the necessary details as we go; in one sense, seeing The Naturalists is rather like listening in on a series of private conversations. And, as it happens, there are quite a few details -- many of them sensational -- to pick up.

The brothers' existence is idyllic in the sense that they are surrounded by quiet and the beauty of nature. Then again, they live in a kind of standoff: The gentle, older Francis cultivates an almost Transcendentalist appreciation of their environment -- he is sensitive to the slightest change in the seasons -- while Billy trudges through his days, each of which climaxes with him plopping onto the couch for an evening of television and a beer or six. Without anyone to supervise, their home is squalid with clutter; meals come exclusively from the microwave. In an early, and nifty, bit of staging, Tim Ruddy, who plays Billy, stabs the protective plastic on his frozen dinner as if attacking a mugger. The gesture is almost Beckettian in its bleak humor.

Aware that they are badly in need of some order (and nutrition), Francis hires Josie, a rather younger local woman, to cook and clean. Like the brothers, she is a singular figure -- an expert in contemporary dance who has made her way across Europe and has dreams of starting a troupe in her hometown. Especially as played by Sarah Street, she is a radiant, faintly mysterious presence; also, she is nobody's fool: Faced with Billy's passive-aggressive hostility, she very nicely -- and in no uncertain terms -- explains that they will not talk about her in the third person while she stands there, or she will be out the door forever. Suddenly, a complex pairing has been altered by the addition of a third, highly individual personality; it is quickly clear that if Josie stays, the brothers' lives will never be the same.

McCarrick takes her time, slowly teasing out the details that define each character's soul and the peculiar arrangement into which they fall. Billy, bitter about his lack of prospects, grouses to Francis, "If we're not careful, we'll end up like those two yokes in the village, Jaxy and Charlie. Married to each other. And I tell ya something, I'll not be the bitch in the relationship." Josie, looking around the brothers' home, notes, "It's a good caravan," only to be gently, but firmly, corrected by Francis, who suggests, not in so many words, that caravans are the province of the poor and lowly. Gradually, we learn the story of the Sloanes' fall from grace. Their father and grandfather ran a prosperous hardware and liquor store, now long closed. The family's house has fallen into disrepair and the brothers' restoration efforts are approaching the twenty-year mark. Darker details emerge: Francis was in prison for twelve years, thanks to his involvement with the IRA. He and Billy were abandoned by their mother, for reasons unknown. Francis retains a soft spot for her, but Billy simmers with discontent, asking his brother, "Ya think because ya keep her holy pictures on the walls she's goin' ta come waltzin' back in here?"

Even as the brothers' melancholy lives are laid bare, Josie seemingly teeters on the brink of deeper emotional involvement with one or both. An impromptu dance with Francis ends with him firmly extricating himself. A frank, almost angry encounter with Billy ends in a kiss. Even so, the mood is hushed, almost languorous; the scenes don't end so much as they drift off, like the morning mist on the nearby meadow. Even as McCarrick's characters intrigue -- how did Francis progress from violent political activist to living in his personal Walden? -- one longs for something to happen between them.

Well, plenty happens in Act II, with the introduction of John-Joe, Francis' former IRA colleague, a not-too-bright lout, and the trio's rustic idyll is transformed into gun-wielding melodrama, complete with revelations about a massacre of British soldiers, a missing cache of money, and some wild-eyed accusations about Billy and his mother. As staged by co-directors Colleen Clinton and Lily Dorment, the action is gripping, but set in a new and clashing key, as the playwright, having allowed her story to linger, forces it, all at once, toward a resolution. Even so, the play slips back into quietude for the final scene, inserting a bombshell final twist into the penultimate line so casually that one could easily miss it altogether.

As handled by the directors and their highly skilled cast -- each of them adept at suggesting much more than is contained in their words -- Francis, Billy, and Josie make for beguiling company. The Naturalists gives that fine actor John Keating -- who has done yeoman's work for the Mint Theatre, the Irish Repertory Theatre, and Theatre for a New Audience -- the vehicle he has long deserved. With a nose like a parrot's beak, hair like an assortment of electric wires, and heavy eyebrows like a pair of curled-up furry creatures, he faces the world with the look of a startled owl. He often plays eccentrics or outsiders, and he gives Francis an interior fire that is clearly the hard-won fruit of years spent carefully separating himself from his destructive past. He is poignant when slipping away from Josie's grasp, disconcerting when, in a moment of quiet anger, hurling a TV remote control into the wilderness, and attention-grabbing when rousing the fury to denounce John-Joe's unwelcome intrusion. Keating may be reason enough to see The Naturalists all by himself.

Sarah Street makes it clear from the start that Josie has a complicated mind of her own, and a heart to go with it, which makes all the more credible her growing connections to Francis and Billy; she also has a natural presence that allows us to see how both men are inescapably drawn to her. Tim Ruddy captures the insecurities and resentments lurking underneath Billy's truculent manner, the sense that he has been crushed by responsibilities -- and he also offers a spot-on imitation of Marlon Brando's Don Corleone. The role of John-Joe is little more than a device -- he exists to wave his pistol and make crazy assertions; in the weirdest bit, he becomes unhinged by the (entirely wrong) idea that Billy, Francis, and Josie are living in some kind of threesome. Still, even if he seems to belong to another play altogether, Michael Mellamphy does his best to make sense of the character. Nevertheless, all three actors could mind their diction a little more; several passages are nearly inaudible due to rushed or underpowered vocal delivery.

For a play in which a strong sense of place is especially meaningful, the production design is very nicely done. Chika Shimizu's set, depicting the inside of the mobile home, is marked by such key details as cheap wallboard, a bamboo curtain, a worn and stained carpet, and, on the wall, china plates and images of Jesus. Caitlin Smith Rapoport's lighting creates a variety of distinct time-of-day looks, including a lovely moonlight wash. Grier Coleman's costumes are filled with subtle touches that help to define the characters. Christopher Ross-Ewart's sound design ranges from songs by Tom Waits to Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending" and such effects as television broadcasts, birdsong, and the honking of swans.

Interestingly, after all the melodrama and the covering up of evidence, the play falls back into quietude for the final scene, save the bombshell final twist slipped into the penultimate line so casually that one could easily miss it altogether. If McCarrick could liven up the first act and tone down the second, The Naturalists would be far more coherent. Still, it is striking enough that you'll probably be looking forward to the next time this distinctive young writer comes around. -- David Barbour

(13 September 2018)

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