People can be crazy and irrational both in and out of love. There’s a colossal stubbornness in any individual that can make meaningful connection of any kind absurdly difficult. The fact that we manage to muddle along in life in love in spite of all of this lies at the center of John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar. Next Act Theatre opens its 2018-19 theatre season with a production of the comedic drama featuring a quartet of talented Milwaukee theatre veterans.
Set in rural Ireland, the play opens as a father and son muse on the passing of an old neighbor. James Pickering carries a whimsically playful apathy about him as the father...a man named Tony who is convinced that he hasn’t long to live. He fully accepts his impending death. It might as well casually written on a calendar somewhere. He has very defined ideas on how things will be handled after his death and he will not be moved. With Pickering’s charm, the character’s obstinance never comes across as cold. There’s a certainty about his performance that suggests a great depth worn from walking the same patch of land for many, many decades.
David Cecsarini puts in an earthy performance as his son Anthony--a man working the land who keeps largely to himself. There’s some suggestion that Anthony might be suffering from a quiet bit of madness that his father keeps talking about. Cescarini does a brilliant job of playing caution against something far deeper in his psyche that he terrified to bring to the surface. It’s a very cleverly layered performance that casts some remarkable complexity into a character who could easily otherwise come across as being nothing more than socially inert.
Carrie Hitchcock puts in a performance that is similarly layered in complexity. She’s playing the neighbor widow Aoife with a great warmth and stillness. Hitchcock’s thoughtful posture is highlighted by the very studied movements of a woman significantly older than she. Like Tony, she’s perfectly well ready for her own end and seems whimsically contented with the end of it all for her. Hitchcock plays at restful wit and wisdom. When it becomes apparent that Tony might not leave the farm to his son Anthony, Aoife casts some light into matters that prove to be quite complicated. There may be some question of what will happen to Tony’s land, but Aoife is absolutely certain that HER farm will go to her daughter Rosemary.
Deborah Staples plays Rosemary--the patient woman living next door who stubbornly holds to ownership of small scraps of a potential future. We first see her meeting with Anthony. She’s smoking. He’s not. She’s trying to get him to open up to her. He keeps his distance without being rude. We sense a connection between them throughout the drama. As Anthony has much going on within his psyche, far more of the connection between the two characters is reflected in delicate shades of Staples' performance. Staples cleverly draws attention Rosemary's faith that she and Anthony possess an intimacy not echoed in the minimal time they have spent together over the years. Staples brings this subtlety to the stage while holding fast to the character’s great emotional strength.
There’s a light and uplifting humor gliding around the gravity of the drama. Shanley’s extreme cleverness in the balance between wit and depression is expertly crafted here. A script like this is great. In the hands of an experienced cast that have worked together many times before in the past...it’s absolutely brilliant. Accomplished actor/director Edward Morgan puts it all together with a soft touch that allows shadowy and subtle moments to vividly hold together.
It all happens on another beautiful Rick Rasmussen set. The rolling hills of Ireland are seen off in the distance. Lighting designer Aaron Sherkow smartly illuminates the background, giving it great volume that plays strange games with its relatively small physical size. (There’s a statement somewhere in there that echoes the overall theme of the play itself.) The earthbound foreground bears the well-worn, lived-in feel of a place that has served as a couple of different homes that rest across a road from each other somewhere in rural Ireland.
Next Act Theatre’s production of Outside Mullingar runs through Oct. 21 on 255 South Water Street. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act online.