Oscar, Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner John Patrick Shanley stayed away from Ireland for too long. In his new play Outside Mullingar, opening this week in New York, he has magically unlocked previously untapped depths of poetry and feeling in his work.
This is no small matter. There’s a strange new voltage in his writing here that propels this gloriously moving play from its promising opening to its increasingly heartening final moments. It’s the work of a lifetime, the consolidation of everything he has learned as a playwright (and quite probably as a man).
The tale is a deceptively simple one. We meet Rosemary (Will and Grace’s delightful Debra Messing) who has pined away for one word of affection from the clueless Anthony (Brian F. O’Byrne) for her entire life.
Both of them are farmers, after a fashion, living on adjoining land. It’s the only thing that unites them, though, because months and even years can go without them spotting hair or hide of each other.
You can miss your own life, your best chance, even when its standing in front of you pleading for a hearing, Shanley reminds us.
You can do this out of fear. Fear of falling flat on your face can mean you never take a chance on the thing that might transform your life forever. That’s the stuff of comedy and tragedy, and Shanley explores both in this spellbinding new play.
Finally another redheaded actress has come along with enough skill and feistiness to remind one of Maureen O’Hara. No one is more surprised than me to announce that it just happens to be Messing.
An American? Well, Messing’s Irish accent work is the most convincing I have heard from an American actress in recent years.
That’s a testament to the prodigious amount of pre-production work she must have put into her performance. Irish cadences do not come easily, and she acquits herself like an almost native.
Some people would trade on their name recognition, but you can tell from Messing’s first appearance how much this play, her character and the poetic language of the work actually mean to her. After all Messing got her biggest break about two decades ago in another Shanley play, so there’s significant history between the writer and the actress already.
In his overalls and green wellingtons the Cavan-born O’Byrne looks every inch the Irish famer in a way that few other Tony Award winning Broadway actors ever could.
O’Byrne gives the most heartfelt and tender performance of his career to date as a lonely, half-mad country misfit given to magical thinking and long moody walks in the rain.
He’s no fan of other people, but he can’t live alone so he darts in and out of people’s lives, usually staying at an unreachable tangent. It looks like he might always, but Rosemary has other plans.
In Shanley’s play the daily drudgery and weirdness of life in remote Irish settings is offset by the fantastically poetic high talk of his characters, the result of their attempts to relive their boredom and express their teeming inner lives.
It’s the most Irish thing Shanley has ever done. The language of Outside Mullingar soars and simultaneously stays grounded. It’s a fascinating balancing act, a heady mix of the poetry of J.M. Synge and the fuhgeddaboudit realism of Brooklyn. It literally sings.
As Aoife, Dearbhla Molloy owns the stage from the moment she arrives, a heady mix of a Garcia Lorca widow and a ribald rustic out of Yeats. She has the sense her husband – and all the men around her – lack.
Bracingly unsentimental, she informs and then orders Tony (Peter Maloney) to bequeath his farm to his beautiful dreamer of a son, rather than to the shrewd but absent American nephew he feels is more likely to produce a heir.
Aoife and Tony represent the thing that Anthony and Rosemary aspire to but may never reach; they have both enjoyed long and happy unions to two partners who have passed on. They represent a challenge and a corrective for the two younger people whose pride and foolishness blind them to the only answer they’ve ever sought.
Outside Mullingar is a tale about a damaged man (and in a real way, a damaged nation) finding the courage to stand up again after one too many hard knocks. It’s also the tale of a defiant woman with more than enough courage and passion to help heal her own life and the man she believes in.
There is still a Celtic Tiger in other words, but it’s in the hearts and souls of the people who inhabit this hilarious and heartbreaking play.
Outside Mullingar is now playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street.