How it’s New York: Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey draws on New York actors and audiences.
How it’s Irish: So famous is “The Playboy of the Western World” by J.M. Synge that at the Irish Rep gala last week, actor Tom Hanks had fun with the line, “He killed his da with a loy.”
Our playboy is all grown up. When Christy Mahon faces the audience and declares that he is master of all fights, he could have been giving the Bar Mitzvah speech, “Today I am a man.”
When against all odds, as the people tried and failed to contain him, the poetic dreamer discovered that he is, against all odds, the brave hero he impersonated.
It’s a fine theatrical moment, too, and an exhilarating climax to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s strong production, which opened this past Saturday and runs through Sunday, June 23.
John Millington Synge’s 1907 play sounds stranger than it is: a vagabond shows up at an isolated shebeen, and when the locals learn that he’s killed his own father, they make a hero of him. The odd conceit is more logical than it sounds. Nothing exciting every happens in the corner of Mayo where the play is set.
We open on the daughter of the house, Pegeen Mike (Izzie Steele), filling accounts and wishing for the heroes of old. The man to whom she’s been promised, Shawn Keogh (James Russell), fears his own shadow and speaks a little too often of what the local priest will say. So when a mysterious stranger confesses that he’s running from the law, because he’s murdered his father with a loy (potato digger), his bold action impresses everyone. He’s a romantic figure in a place that lacks romance.
Nobody seems to have much gumption, except for the attractive Widow Quinn (Emma O’Donnell), who killed her own man when an infection she gave him festered. All seems to go along smoothly until the Da supposedly killed shows up, with a flesh wound. “Playboy” here means liar or trickster, but in a good way, more than womanizer.
Synge described the play as a comedy, and also a tribute to the imagination of the people, and it is both those things. Late in the play, when Pegeen has definitively pledged herself to Christy, she dismisses the sniveling Keogh as someone
“with no savagery or fine words in him at all?”
Director Paul Mullins mines the play for comedy, and every time someone praises Christy for being so bold as to kill his own father the audience laughs. Michael A. Newcomer’s Christy shows the softness and fear in the playboy. While that worked against some of his flights of poetry, for me, there’s a terrific payoff when he finally claims his power. The appearance of swooning girls, played by the non-Equity company, particularly delights.
Izzie Steele’s Pegeen Mike shows the biting tongue that has made her the “fright of seven townlands,” and we see the jealousy of other girls and the yearning for something more on her face even when her speech denies it. When she collaborates to capture him near the end, believing he’s lied to her, her face betrays her ambivalence even as her speech denies it.
For she’s still considering what the audience remembers his saying just the scene before:
“It’s little you’ll think if my love’s a poacher’s, or an earl’s itself, when you’ll feel my two hands stretched around you, and I squeezing kisses on your puckered lips, till I’d feel a kind of pity for the Lord God is all ages sitting lonesome in his golden
Pretty irresistible stuff.
Steele did not make me see why Christy is so hung up on Pegeen – it’s a difficult role, certainly, because her romantic yearning is covered up by her brash, unkind tongue. Still, it could be a bit more evident than Steele allows it. We have to believe that Christy sees it, though, because he’s so enamored with her he rejects the solid offer of a handsome widow, even when she learns the truth about him, and he famously says,
“It’s Pegeen I’m seeking only, and what’d I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself, maybe, from this place to the Eastern World?”
Famously, because the line about “shifts” supposedly caused a riot at the Abbey when the play was first produced. The cause of the riot itself has been problematized over the years, and whether it really was the word that provoked it, or the general sense that Synge was making fun of Irish peasantry. In any case, Christy clearly always had the boldness of the gallant lover in his heart, even when he was living with his Da, fearful of everyone, unnoticed by the girls, mocked by schoolfellows.
Synge, who lived from 1871 to 1909, has his characters speak in English but use Irish constructions. He claimed to have listened hard to servant girls in Wicklow, and to the talk of peasants in the Aran islands. Take Peggy’s speech here:
“I’m thinking you’ll be a loyal young lad to have working around, and if you vexed me a while since with your leaguing with the girls, I wouldn’t give a thraneen for a lad hadn’t a mighty spirit in him and a gamey heart.”
The language is so poetic and so particularly Irish that actors need not work too hard for accents. Unfortunately, they were truly all over the map in Shakespeare Theatre’s production. The characters seldom sound like they are all, with the exception of Christy and his Da, from the same place. Russell, so good as sensitive Michael in “Freedom of the City” at Irish Rep (read our review here), begins the play sounding like he’s from Cork. His accent calms down in Act II, and allows his physical comedy as the trembling, sincere Shawn to surface. O’Donnell’s Widow Quin energetically vamps and plots, but the overemphasis of her accent was often distracting. She brings a decency to Quinn that surprises pleasantly.
Among the townspeople, Michael Daly’s Jimmy Farrell blusters endearingly. A scene in which he, Quin, and others, including the undead Da, watch the sports in the strand below the shebeen, where Christy is winning everything, strikes the comic jackpot.
Best of all was Edmond Genest as the Da. Genest hits each nuance with truth and comedy, particularly when he reappears at the shebeen after Quin tried to trick him into searching for Christy, saying he felt a drought come on him, licking his lips. He’s strong, fierce, lovable and believable, so when he describes Christy as a lout who never did any work,
“or if he did itself, you’d see him raising up a haystack like the stalk of a rush, or driving our last cow till he broke her leg at the hip, and when he wasn’t at that he’d be fooling over little birds he had – finches and felts – or making mugs at his own self in the bit of glass we had hung on the wall.”
The bit about the glass is particularly funny because we’d just seen Christy holding onto it too long.
Da’s refusal to stay dead, and then apparent death by real murder, brings the play to its hilarious, spectacular climax. What happens has all the comic force of an Irish ballad where the murderer cheerfully confesses his crimes on the gallows, and indeed Christy enjoys the picture of that himself, saying,
“And won’t there be crying out in Mayo the day I’m stretched upon the rope with ladies in their silks and satins snivelling in their lacy kerchiefs, and they rhyming songs and ballads on the terror of my fate?”
OK, I realize I’m sneaking bits of the play into this review, but really, Synge’s language is so appealing and so funny that it demands to be heard.
Brittany Vasta’s shebeen set is a little too big – how to solve that problem on a large stage I don’t know – but otherwise evocative. The way the roof of the cottage is half-built and allows the sky to show beyond, with painterly lighting by Michael Giannitti, is lovely, and deftly expresses how the atmosphere of the country affects the imagination. Candida Nichols’ peasant costume designs are perfection itself. Going back to Christy’s “Bar Mitzvah” speech:
“You’ve turned me a likely gaffer in the end of all, the way I’ll go romancing through a romping lifetime, from this hour to the dawning of the Judgment Day.”
It’s small wonder Pegeen grieves at what she’s lost.
The Playboy of the Western World runs at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave. (at Lancaster Road) in Madison, through Sunday, June 23. Tickets at 973-408-5600 or by visiting shakespearenj.org.