In the fictional village of Coolatully, a quartet of characters grapple with the effects of Ireland’s newest mass emigration. The brief and heady era of the Celtic Tiger was over; a mass exodus was triggered by the global financial crisis of 2007.
The town is drying up and all who can leave are departing for Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Of the four, only Eilish has a plan – she will restart her life as a nurse in Sydney. The others are mired in circumstance, or paralyzed by psychological barriers that conspire to keep them in place.
As a 17-year old, Kilian reached the apex of his young life as a local hurling champion At 27, he is nearly washed up by lack of opportunity, a family tragedy, and the twin foibles of boredom and indecision. His pal Paudie, a minor felon, will find it difficult to obtain a visa because he’s served time. Jimmy Barrett is simply too old to pull up his stakes. Even a move to Dublin, at his daughter’s insistence, strikes him with fear. All of them turn easily toward a bottle of Jameson or a six-pack of beer when the questions of what’s ahead overwhelm them.
Playwright Fiona Doyle sketches their stories with warmth and sensitivity in her 2014 play, Coolatully. Under the adept direction of Rex Daugherty, the Solas Nua company’s talented actors create a richly nuanced portrait of characters who genuinely care for one another.
David Mavricos plays Kilian Dempsey as a friend whose fierce but misguided loyalty propels him into making a bad decision. Mavricos portrays Kilian’s aching vulnerability through his adroit body language as the play builds steadily to its climax. Kiernan McGowan brings to the role of Paudie a strutting bonhomie, yet he is grounded in realistic assessment of his situation. Jimmy Barrett is played by the accomplished Brian Hemmingsen. Stiff and decrepit, he nonetheless reaches out to give Kilian the chance he needs to wrest himself from his own lethargy. Jenny Donovan shines as Eilish O’Connor, exuding an energy and passion that is a sharp counterpoint to the others.
As an ensemble, the Solas Nua players succeed in giving the play a steady spark even in those instances when Doyle extends her characters’ conversations beyond what is necessary. Given that the action on which the play will turn is strikingly obvious long before it happens, the cast’s strong performances are all the more laudable.
Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s simple and sturdy set, complemented by Marianne Meadows’ highly effective lighting design, did all that was necessary to transport us from one scene to the next without ever leaving the sad remains of the bar run by Kilian and his mother. Mom is never seen, though her presence is suggested through the occasional sound of water dripping above. Similarly, a rushing wind signifies the graveyard where Kilian sometimes retreats to think about his late brother, Seamus. The soundscape, punctuated now and then by radio playing country western songs, is the evocative work of Ethan Balis.
Solas Nua, which means “new light” in Irish, prides itself as America’s only organization dedicated exclusively to contemporary Irish arts, including music, visual arts, and literary events in addition to theater. Their production of Coolatully is the American premiere of Fiona Doyle’s lyrical play.
Solas Nua has made a valuable contribution to DC’s current theater season, not only with their excellent work, but by reminding us how the demise of small towns – in Ireland or anywhere else – can tear the fabric of community apart and wreak havoc with those who live there.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.