There was a festive atmosphere at Everyman Theatre last night. Irish music played as the audience arrived for the Baltimore/DC Metro premiere of Outside Mullingar. The music alone could lift your spirits; the songs of the tin whistle, fiddle, and bodhran were made for dancing and merry-making. But it was more than that. We were awaiting the region’s opening night performance of a play by Pulitzer, Oscar, and Tony Award-winning author, John Patrick Shanley, and directed by Everyman confrere and recent Tony Award nominee, Donald Hicken.
During its run on Broadway last year, it was called his “finest work since Doubt” by the New York Times. We had every reason to think this was going to be a great night of theater, and we were not disappointed.
The first applause of the performance occurred before a single actor took the stage. As the lights dimmed, the pastoral Irish countryside backdrop opened up and an interior set – the protagonist’s kitchen – glided into view via stage magic. When it came to rest, it occupied half the stage. Everyman Theatre’s Resident Set Designer, Daniel Ettinger, outdid himself on this show. Much like the disdained cousin in the play, I am an Irish citizen born in America. Ettinger’s sets made me nostalgic for my childhood visits to the Emerald Isle. The Reilly and the Muldoon sets were just like my grandmother’s kitchen: small lace curtains; cabinets packed to bursting with lovely dishes; wood-burning stove; tea kettle; biscuit tin… the attention to the little details made them feel like real Irish homes. And thanks to Resident Company Dialects Coach Gary Logan’s excellent work with the cast, the “real Irish” feel was not betrayed by poorly executed Irish accents. The cast sounded lovely and quite genuine to my ear.
Phillip Owen’s sound design and music choices conspired with Ettinger’s beautiful set to create a sense of place that the audience, as well as the actors, could occupy. As we saw the rain falling against the rural landscape, we heard its gentle patter all around us. When the action was taking place outside, the nearby bleating of sheep subtly reminded us that these were working farms. Likewise, the music that accompanied some scenes underscored the plot and matched well with the characters’ repeated mentions of the traditional Irish folk song, “Wild Mountain Thyme.” Though not mentioned in the play, the song also goes by the name “Will Ye Go Lassie Go,” a discreet nod to the action unfolding onstage.
Outside Mullingar is a hilarious comedy. Shanley’s writing is lyrical and poetic, but also clever and sharp. Over and over again, it seemed that every member of the audience was laughing at once, together enjoying the lighthearted whimsy mixed in with the more serious parts of the show. Even the opening scenes, in which people have just arrived home following the funeral of a family member/neighbor, the comedic interactions had the audience in stitches.
The more serious themes of the play are ones common in Irish stories. They lift a pint and toast to life, encouraging us all to live life to the fullest as you don’t know if you’ll have another day. They celebrate the simple pleasures of life and wax romantic on love. But there’s also a heavy vein of suffering stretching through the peat bogs. Each of the characters in Outside Mullingar is, in some way, suffering greatly for love. Shanley manages to incorporate this all into a play as quick as Brad Pitt’s Traveller accent in Snatch and as wittily irreverent as Oscar Wilde’s… well… everything.
But even outstanding writing and skillful direction, set design, soundscape, and lighting (courtesy of Lighting Designer, Jesse Belsky) do not guarantee a great show; they build the environment in which one can flourish. It’s the actors who complete the equation, breathing life into the words and inhabiting the world these other artists have devised. The actors in Everyman’s production of Outside Mullingar do their part expertly.
In some shows, there’s a clear scene-stealer – an actor who is operating at such a different level that even if their part is small, their impact is huge. They’re often the best part of the play, the aspect you remember most. That’s not the case in this production. The small, 4-person cast of this show work together like a single unit, their actions and reactions in sync, their banter so natural you can forget they are actors speaking someone else’s words and experience the characters like real people engaging in their lives.
Everyman Theatre Resident Company Member Beth Hylton portrays Rosemary, who is the funniest character in the play. She performs the role with fiery grace. She moves the story along, even when it comes kicking and screaming. She is feisty, down to earth, and straightforward in expressing her thoughts about nearly everything.
Rosemary’s mother, Aoife – charmingly played by Helen Hardman – is also quite forthright about things. She and her neighbor Tony, performed delightfully grumpily by Resident Company Member Wil Love, have shockingly frank conversations. Just moments after her husband’s funeral, Tony tells Aoife she’ll likely be dead within a year. Her response, instead of offense at both his statement and his timing, is simply an acknowledgement that yes, he’s probably right.
Tim Getman rounds out the cast in the role of Anthony, Tony’s long-suffering son. Anthony is by far the show’s most serious-minded character. His dad is tough on him; he doesn’t much like the work he does; and, having been rebuffed at an early age by the object of his affection, he has a pretty glum perspective on the world. Still, when he and Rosemary get to talking, he livens up. Actors Hylton and Getman work with Shanley’s quick-witted dialogue beautifully. Their sharp back-and-forth volleys depend on perfect timing to be clever and funny and these two actors nailed it.
Outside Mullingar is a fun, fanciful play that deals with heavy topics like death, suffering, and love in a way that had us leaving the theater with a smile on our faces. It’s a perfect way to brighten up a dreary December day with a 4:30 pm sundown and absolutely unpredictable weather.
Take a pleasant break from the holiday shopping madness and visit Everyman Theatre to watch Outside Mullingar. It’s a show that lives up to Everyman’s motto: “Great Stories. Well Told.”
Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.