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Theatre in Review: The Mountains Look Different (Mint Theater Company/Theatre Row)

Brenda Meaney, Jesse Pennington. Photo: Todd Cerveris.

The Mountains Look Different is a golden opportunity to get acquainted with two names you should know: Micheál Mac Liammóir and Brenda Meaney. Neither is as well known in New York as he or she deserves and, once again, the Mint has provided a showcase for talents that warrant much wider exposure.

Age before beauty: Mac Liammóir was, arguably, the most important figure in twentieth-century Irish theatre, after the Abbey Theatre generation of Synge, Yeats, O'Casey, and Lady Gregory: He made history as a playwright, actor, memoirist, and co-founder of the Gate Theatre, a repository of dramatic modernism that presented works by Ibsen, Wilde, and O'Neill. Mac Liammóir's own plays are equally strong stuff, if The Mountains Look Different is anything to go by; this ruthlessly paced rural tragedy offers an unblinking look at sexual hypocrisy -- an Irish specialty, if truth be told -- focusing on a heroine who will stop at nothing to keep her past buried.

Bairbre, an Irishwoman, has spent the last several years in London, running a hotel, according to her uncle, Matthew Conroy. Now she has married Tom Grealish, a big, not-too-bright specimen who has brought her home to live with Martin, his cold, withholding father on their Connemara farm. ("Devil a bit in it but stones and water," in Martin's coldly accurate description of the family land.) At a glance, something seems off about the pairing of the earthy, lovestruck Tom and the conspicuously overdressed Bairbre, who, despite her best company manners, is tense, tentative, feeling her way around this strange environment, sustained only by reserves of nervous energy. She cuts an exotic figure in this harsh landscape: "My God! She's as good as a circus," marvels a young local. Tom, recalling their courtship, says, "Ach, you looked like a painted devil would coax a saint, and you were as starchy as a nun," but, really, he only sees what he wants to see. One of Mac Liammóir's great strengths is to reveal, without saying so directly, that the kind of services that Bairbre provided back in London had nothing to do with hotel management.

Having established Bairbre as a woman with a terrible secret, the playwright adds an explosive twist when Martin recognizes her from a previous encounter in London some years earlier. ("The one shame of my life" is how he describes the episode, which Bairbre struggles to recall.) Unwilling to add a scarlet woman to his clan, he moves swiftly to break up the marriage. But he underestimates Bairbre, who has reached the end of the line, spiritually, and can see no other future for herself. The program notes for The Mountains Look Different make clear its similarities to O'Neill's Anna Christie (which was produced twice at the Gate), but, in some ways, its plot is the mirror image of Desire Under the Elms, and Bairbre's remorseless solution to her problems is right out of a novel by James M. Cain.

The effect of The Mountains Look Different depends heavily on the actress playing Bairbre, and the director, Aidan Redmond, has struck gold with Meaney, who seizes the opportunity with both hands. The actress has done solid work elsewhere -- as a self-involved young matron in The New Morality, at the Mint, and as an acidly wisecracking guest in the comedy Party Face -- but she outdoes herself here: She masterfully lays bare the fear behind Bairbre's determinedly ingratiating manner, and when a young man, trying to make conversation, talks about becoming a detective, the sudden storm of hostility that seizes her reveals plenty about her compromised past. (The menacing cigarette puff that follows this outburst is enough to silence anyone.) She fences deftly with Martin, evading his insinuations for as long as humanly possible. And when finally forced to admit the truth, she pours out her story without an ounce of self-pity: "I was sixteen when I went to London because the life was dull at home. Dull! My God! And I didn't know how to do nothing, see? I lost five places because I was too damn ignorant to keep them. I never even knew why I lost them. All I knew was I didn't like loneliness. I didn't like the cold nor the dark. I didn't like drudgery. Respectable people does be great slave drivers."

Later, when Bairbre has taken extreme measures to protect her new position, we see her composure crumble under the pressures of guilt and hysteria, climaxing in a stunning public statement of responsibility. Meaney's work is remarkably tensile, showing how Bairbre makes a last grasp at hope in the way that someone plummeting from a height grabs at anything that might break her fall. From the play's earliest moments, it seems clear that it cannot end well, yet one remains fascinated, eager to know the terms of the disaster to come.

Even for a theatre with the Gate's reputation, The Mountains Look Different must have been a shocker for audiences in 1948. The program notes report that the Legion of Mary was particularly incensed, insisting "(a) there were no Irish prostitutes in London" and "(b) that no Irish Catholic would have anything to do with a prostitute." (What a happy little world the legionnaires must have inhabited.) That this rather muscular sexual melodrama was the product of a theatrical titan and beloved cultural figure who was also half of Dublin's most (and, possibly, only) visible gay couple -- his partner was Hilton Edwards, co-founder of the Gate and a famous actor in his own right -- is one of those only-in-Erin ironies that make the country so fascinating. (That Mac Liammóir was in actuality Alfred Willmore, an Englishman, a fact not made public until after his death, suggests that he had in common with Bairbre a gift for self-reinvention.)

In addition to its efficient construction, The Mountains Look Different benefits from a golden tongue, a kind of back-country poetry that lingers in the mind. Consider Martin's withering summation of Tom as "a big soft stammering slob, thirty and three years he have put from him," who, having turned down two local girls, has run off to London "to get himself spliced with an old doll maybe would scare the crows." Or Tom, dismissing the idea of marrying a local "with the big bosom and the big legs and the smell of the cows off her," telling Bairbre, "You smell like a beautiful shop." And there is nothing more devastating than Bairbre's insisting to Martin that "a woman can't sell nothing without there's a call for it, don't you believe it" -- a comment that carries more than a hint of condemnation.

Aside from a bit of awkwardness in handling the Act II crowd scenes, Redmond gets solid work from his cast, especially Con Horgan, whose Martin oozes disapproval mixed with guilt over his own indiscretions and horror at seeing them reappear in the form of Bairbre -- not to mention some residual stirrings of lust. Also offering effective turns are Daniel Marconi as a farmhand who falls under Bairbre's spell; Paul O'Brien as Bairbre's benign, well-heeled uncle; and Liam Forde as a feral youth who nearly ends up as the fall guy for Bairbre. The production would have benefited from a more straightforward characterization of Tom, but Jesse Pennington, whose overly stylized work damaged Richard Nelson's version of Uncle Vanya last season, takes a similar approach here, constantly striking overly theatrical poses and delivering his lines in a nonstop mutter, without seeming to move his lips; whether this would ever work is debatable, but it is jarringly out of place here.

The production design evokes the characters' hardscrabble existence, beginning with Vicki R. Davis' set, the exterior of a stone cottage that opens up to reveal a cheerless interior; key details include an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the wall and a china cabinet that is the only decent piece of furniture. Christian DeAngelis' lighting follows a dusk-to-dawn cycle, using the appropriate colors to suggest the passage of time. Andrea Varga's costumes draw a strong contrast between Bairbre's carefully assembled ensembles and the timeless country wear of Tom, Martin, and the others. M. Florian Staab's sound design provides some appropriately moody folk melodies as well as such effects as wind, car engines, barking dogs, and the voices of revelers at a nearby bonfire, a ritual celebration that plays a crucial role in the play's climax.

The Mint has been justly acclaimed for rediscovering a great many lost plays and playwrights, but its most singular achievement is the bright light it has cast on Irish dramatic literature of the last century, revealing a corpus of acutely written, highly playable works, most of which have been seen in this country fleetingly if at all. Many theatre companies offer fine productions; very few of them open up an entire world to their audiences. The Mint can rightly claim to have done so.--David Barbour

(8 July 2019)

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