The Irish are legendary storytellers, and Conor McPherson’s play, one of his earliest, is a rollicking but thought-provoking tale of adventurous misadventure, told as a rotating round (and refreshed and lubricated by rounds) in a coastal “chipper” north of Dublin by two young brothers and their older—but not wiser—friend. As we enter, a young woman’s voice backed up by a small chorus accompanied by strings and percussion sings a sort of sea chantey in a minor key (sound design: Jack Sbarbori). As the scene opens, the music changes to a solo: a single, mournful Irish fiddle (played by Sarah Foard; sound technician: Ed Moser).
The chipper is bright and well-kept (by Ed Moser). A black sign with gold lettering: “Beneventi’s Fish & Chips, Est. 1986″ hangs against a black-filagree fish net on the wall; below it, a small model ship’s wheel; below it, a white formica counter with chrome napkin and condiment holders and three cushioned bar stools. About the room are three similarly equipped small round tables bearing olive-green-and-white-checkered tablecloths.
A wooden cupboard with colorful mugs atop it at stage left is flanked by decorative anchors, while a fully stocked three-tier magazine rack hangs beside double doors at stage right; to their left are 10 small framed sea-themed pictures, along with three “Friday” magazines with orange cartoon fish on the covers. At the back are rectangular floor-to-ceiling posters, the nearest one red with yellow lettering proclaiming SHELBOURNE FOOTBALL CLUB
In short: a cheery, welcoming place (with set and props by Jack Sbarbori).
Somewhat less so—each for his own reason, if linked by a common, inescapably flawed humanity—are the three lads who call it their home-away-from-home: Frank Beneventi, his younger brother Joe, and their friend Ray Sullivan. Joe (Chris Stinson), the youngest, Catholic-school scrubbed, hair barely there and brushed back, fresh and dapper in light-gray slacks, white shirt, and navy v-neck sweater with school patch at the upper left (costumes uncredited), begins the first of what will be a series of uninterrupted monologues lasting up to 15 minutes or more. Do not, by any means, allow this to put you off. The skill of the writing, the acting and the directing will keep you riveted, like a suspenseful campfire story or bedtime tale.
With a mixture of uncertainty and bravado, and underlying them, a wide-eyed, childlike innocence, Joe recounts how he became corrupted by the delinquent Damien, the irresistible “bad boy” new to the school who taught him to smoke, go on the mitch (play hooky) and go after girls. Stinson is endearingly convincing as he tells Frank and Ray, who listen attentively (throughout the play, whenever one speaks, the other two absorb what he says with astuteness and genuine interest) how the girls didn’t even notice he was there, but that he made up for it by fantasizing about them—suffice it to say, the “explosion” he envisioned was an actual nuclear one—when he got home.
Next up is Ray (Michael Avolio), a university lecturer and another kettle of fish entirely—and the analogy is uncomfortably apt: Later on, he relates how he dated the brothers’ sister Carmela, whose poised intelligence and innate goodness at once confounded and attracted him. “And I started thinking it was a good thing souls didn’t smell,” he tells them. “Because mine would stink.” Dressed in a taupe jacket, dark slacks, periwinkle blue shirt and broad golden yellow tie with large blue dots, Ray, his unruly black hair matched by a mustache and short, under-the-chin beard, airily relates his sexual escapades—a better word, arguably, would be assaults—with his students. Avolio manages to make Ray someone you want to punch in the face (or knee in the nether regions), and at the same time, someone whose combination of nonchalance, malfunctioning conscience and sliver of a still-functioning cognizance makes him, at certain moments, not altogether unlikeable.
Frank (David Mavricos) is the trio’s crystal-blue-eyed James Dean, and as distinct from his sham and his bro as they are from each other. Dressed in black from head to toe, long, asymmetrical blond bangs swinging rakishly to the side, Frank picks up the narrative with the tale of Simple Simon, from whom their dad had borrowed “a couple thousand” to keep the restaurant afloat, and who had assured him he’d have time to pay it back because they were friends. Instead, he harassed, harangued and threatened the old man, to Frank’s steadily growing fury. With just a few sentences, Mavricos conveys Frank’s dangerous volatility, a crackling electricity and a seething, silent, deadly tension seemingly rippling through his skin.
As if to contrast the characters, Joe picks up the narrative with a tale of an IRA conspiracy that left a young girl hanged for the murder of a cop because she accidentally tripped over a lantern when they were arresting her and one of them died in the fire. Joe wants things to make sense— Stinson’s earnestness and pain are subdued, yet affecting—but knows that more often than not, they don’t; he tells Frank he likes the books he gives him because “the sentences are short. The ones you read in school, you have to figure out what they mean. Nobody says what they mean.”
Well, Ray certainly does: his next tale is of a famous German philosopher who came to lecture at his school, which made for a memorable day for Ray—for entirely different reasons. (Anyone sensitive to gross-out humor: be forewarned.) Frank, on the other hand, is a man of few words, and quiet action. Frank has a strong sense of justice, as well as a larcenous streak, both of which he relishes, and which will draw in Ray and Joe, in a sitcom-like episode, as he decides to take the law into his own hands (and pull one of Joe’s hats low down over his head) and teach Simple Simon a sharp and simple lesson.
Frank’s delight in the telling of the tale draws us in. And our implicit agreement that his dad was treated shabbily—so that we root for him, even as he describes a violent armed robbery and their crowing over the money and celebrating with it—exemplifies the “moral ambiguity” of the play Sbarbori noted in an interview.
Meanwhile, Joe is beset with his own, as he remembers his long-suffering, dying mother, and his inability to come to terms with his relief at her death. The stark simplicity of his recitation is yet another kind of “simple”; here the simpleness of a child’s bewilderment.(Our sadness, if not his, is lifted as he recalls seeking advice at the liquor store on how many beers it would take him to get drunk. His estimate was proof—100 proof?—that it’s a good thing he wasn’t behind the wheel of the getaway car.)
But Joe has other, more stressful, more monstrous memories; and it is these that will bring his narrative full circle, and the play to its conclusion. That it’s the story of the youngest that has this power may—or may not—say something about how McPherson sees the play’s narrative arc. “Plays have to come very organically and from a place that is beyond rational decisions,” he told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. Jack Sbarbori and his production team, on the other hand, clearly made a number of them. And they have paid off handsomely.
The play’s title is taken from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower,” in which the author contemplates his solitude, his friends having gone off without him. The last line of the poem reads: “No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.” A sentiment that both recalls, and would seem to be at odds with, an oft-quoted observation penned by another famous playwright:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)
Perhaps there’s a bit of both in This Lime-Tree Bower. As the poem also tell us:
“’Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.”
Here is one you can share. I’d recommend it.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without an intermission.
This Lime Tree Bower plays through August 9, 2015 at Quotidian Theatre Company performing at The Writer’s Center – 4508 Walsh Street, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 816-1023, or purchase them online.