Review: ‘The Lonesome West’ at The Keegan Theatre

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The Keegan Theatre’s current and provocatively darkly comic production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West, written by the brilliant, raffish and audacious Irish playwright (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Pillowman, etc.), is NOT about cowboys.

Bradley Foster Smith and Matthew Keenan. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.
Bradley Foster Smith and Matthew Keenan. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

Set in the West Ireland town of Leenane, the audience is greeted with familiar McDonagh terrain as we witness the lives of two continually quarrelling and contentious brothers. Their violent bond appears to mask an unbreakable sibling connection that refuses to reveal itself —except in the most offhand moments of camaraderie and abortive eclectic attempts at reconciliation when prodded on by an idealistic yet “stone-weary” priest (who, indeed, has problems of his own!).

Playwright Martin McDonagh is a master at blending the real-life moments of sharing thoughts and sitting around reminiscing with the high-voltage dissonance of quarreling and boisterousness that further animates and embellishes dazzling comedic spans between generations, between old customs and between the changing norms of the present day. McDonagh, thus, fills the void of aching loneliness and the desperation of a remote town (that has just had two murders and a suicide) with the boisterous and raucous appeal of the individualistic, iconoclastic spirit railing against all established order and conventionality.

Under the astute and masterful Direction of Mark A. Rhea, this production becomes starting alive as it delivers on top-flight performances from a cast of four, a stunningly evocative set (Set Design by Matthew J. Keenan) and most —importantly—ultimate respect for the text of this beautifully-written play. Director Rhea’s prowess in this production cannot be underestimated for there is not one false note in the proceedings.

Quarrelling brothers Coleman (Matthew J. Keenan) and Valene (Bradley Foster Smith) are portrayed with canny and charismatic skill and they both manage to convey a perversely affectionate yet violent brotherhood.  Keenan is the most extroverted cruel prankster here and he invests a truly abrasive character with flashes of dark humor. Keenan’s physical authority is the prime weapon in his arsenal. He portrays a character that could quite easily be construed as bordering on the psychopathic – yet Keenan calibrates his cruel maneuvers with many unique, disarming moments.

Smith’s Valene employs a more cunning, miserly and sardonically gleeful portrayal of a lost soul as he leers menacingly at every turn and, then, quixotically veers into a myriad of moods that flicker over his face with dexterous skill. With his hair slicked back and his wiry, hunched posture, Mr. Smith appears to be a cross between Dickens’ Uriah Heep and Beavis or Butthead of television pop culture fame! Smith’s genius is his ability to turn this cruel caricature of a human being into a fully-realized character.

These two squabbling brothers surprise us at every turn and it is to their supreme credit that they hold us spellbound even in their vacant distant stares and during their long, controlled drinking of their beloved “poteen” while sitting at their kitchen table.

The fight scenes between these two boisterous brothers arise as naturally as the venomous insults that these characters hurl with such speed. Credit must be given to Fight Choreographer Casey Kaleba for aiding in bringing out the sheer physicality of their portrayals.

Keenan and Smith play off each other brilliantly especially in the highpoint of the play which occurs in Act Two. What begins with an idealistic feeling of forgiveness for past and current transgressions very swiftly deteriorates into a totally immersive merging of recriminations and vicious “mind-games”  that was as psychologically bruising, menacingly dissonant and emotionally inverted as anything out of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Also filling out the cast of this motley group is the character of the forlorn priest, Father Welsh. The marvelous actor Chris Stezin portrays this priest as a person trying fervently to hold on to any sliver of hope and redemption amidst the desolate and depressing atmosphere of the remote town of Leenane. Stezin’s complex yet amazingly direct and self-possessed portrayal of this Irish priest is the emotional center of the play even when he is giving up all hope of saving the souls of his wayward town.

Stezin etches every nuance of his character with precise and consummate skill. Especially astounding is his lengthy monologue delivered in an almost elegiac and “reverie-like” tone as he recites a letter he has written to Valene and Coleman begging them to atone for their sins and to reconcile. Stezin held me spellbound through a very controlled yet moving monologue full of pathos and mystery.

Sarah Chapin, Matthew Keenan, and Bradley Foster Smith. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.
Sarah Chapin, Matthew Keenan, and Bradley Foster Smith. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

A fourth character, Girleen, played with just the right sly “wink of an eye” by Sarah Chapin could easily become a stereotype just by virtue of her name but Ms. Chapin invests the character with just the right amount of charm, callowness, spontaneity and pragmatism inherent in her character. A very textured performance indeed!

Particularly captivating is a very lengthy yet involving scene between Ms. Chapin and Mr. Stezin in which they share intimate thoughts while sitting by the landing of a lake. Alternate moods shifted like cascading layers of emotional gravity as I realized I was witnessing a master class in acting.

These skilled actors are all up to the mark for it is no easy task to convey the inventive intensity of the wordplay in McDonagh’s microcosm of lost souls. McDonagh uses language the way David Mamet does ——the language itself becomes the plot as we enter into the rich panoply of Idiomatic Irish, slang and heightened wordplay of all varieties.   This wordplay becomes the experience of life itself.

The film director Alfred Hitchcock’s famous usage of the “MacGuffin” popped into my head for Playwright McDonagh also employs this esteemed Director’s technique —as the actual reasoning behind the actual machinations of the plot do not matter as much as the red herrings thrown into the text to keep the audience continually surprised and off-balance to keep one guessing through a series of highly-charged scenes.

McDonagh’s writing style might initially appear to be tragic based on the sheer physical provocation, squabbling and verbal abuse found in the play but he triumphs by developing another layer of camaraderie and heightened verbal patter to the mix. (It is virtually impossible to ascertain what the next interchange will be and one is continually left surprised –).  McDonagh’s startling and violent veneer is infused with the sharply-etched authenticity and coarse yet intuitive vernacular of this small group of Irish characters.

Set Design by Matthew J. Keenan embodies a very Irish cottage “to a tee” from the plaster walls, the comfortably worn chairs, the beam ceiling, worn kitchen items, curio cabinets and —of course—Valene’s beloved figurines.

Lighting Design by Colin Dieck is strikingly atmospheric and Costume Design by Erin Nugent was entirely appropriate for these intriguing characters.

Sound Design by Tony Angelini is extremely innovative and original in its usage of contemporary music when each successive scene progressed from the other.

Like East of Eden and True West (and even as far back as the Biblical story of Cain and Abel), the tales of quarreling brothers have captured the imagination.  The rugged boisterousness and conniving of these characters cannot be squelched even when one can sense that their familial bonds pull them so closely together.

Director Rhea has meshed all the elements of this play so tightly together that I would be foolhardy to divulge hardly any of the elements of this plot such as it is —as this would be a disservice to the elements of ever- consecutive surprise of this raucous and inventive play.

McDonagh himself does not like to over-analyze so I do not want to disarm his spirit of adventure. He has been quoted as saying “People should leave a theatre with the same feeling that you get at a really good rock concert. You don’t want to talk about it, you just let it buzz into you.  I can’t stand people analyzing things. A play should be a thrill like a fantastic rollercoaster.”

A tone of fatalism and death—literally or figuratively—hovers over McDonagh’s characters like a sly and savvy alternative to the vicissitudes of life itself. To fill the void of their meager existence, such seemingly mundane issues as who gets to drink the beloved “poteen” or who gets the freshest parcel of “taytos” take on monumental importance.   One of the brothers (Valene) taunts the other by marking all of his possessions with a big “V” to warn him to keep his hands off.  These cruel taunting scenes propel the play along its twisting contours.

Chris Stezin and Bradley Foster Smith. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.
Chris Stezin and Bradley Foster Smith. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

I feel that McDonagh possesses a totally Catholic sensibility but it is decidedly a sensibility pushed to its outmost extreme for theatrical effect. He might be the Irish equivalent of the “curmudgeon-like” view of human existence that we see in American writers like H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain—-albeit with a much more fatalistic edge.

The “twist” in Mr. McDonagh’s writing, however, is that this scabrous view of human nature prevalent in these characters becomes somewhat endearing in its very irascibility. (The tone is akin to a husband/wife/partner you may love dearly yet can irritate the hell out of you—!).  Ironies abound here.

This is exactly what happens in Keegan’s clever production of McDonagh’s quirkily stimulating play.  A cry against complacency amidst utter complacency shows the utter irony and futility of much of life itself.  Yet a glimmer of hope remains and intrudes even as the aggravations of these fighting brothers accrue—for as the actress Katharine Hepburn once remarked: “You gain affection for something that used to irritate you —once it is gone”.

Do not miss Keegan Theatre’s scintillating and thrilling production of The Lonesome West! The Keegan Theatre has produced an emotional, subversive, and darkly comic masterpiece!

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

The Lonesome West plays through August 27, 2016 at The Keegan Theatre -1742 Church Street, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

LINKS:
‘The Lonesome West’ at The Keegan Theatre reviewed by David Friscic.

Spine: ‘The Lonesome West’ and Other Motherless Places at Keegan Theatre by Robert Michael Oliver.

Magic Time! ‘The Lonesome West’ at The Keegan Theatre by John Stoltenberg.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1553.gif

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David Friscic
David has always had a passionate interest in the arts from acting in professional dinner theatre and community theatre to reviewing film and local theatre in college to making numerous treks to New York City to indulge his interest in live theatre. An enthusiastic interest in writing has shown itself in a BA in English/Education and an MA in English Literature. Taken together, these two interests have culminated in the logical conclusion of writing for an arts blog. David moved up and down the East Coast due to his father's job at General Electric and this has helped him to perceive the world in a very open way. After his schooling, David taught in Catholic school systems for awhile and, then, spent three years in the seminary with two years at Catholic University studying Theology and one year in a practicuum working at a church in New York State. David currently works at the National Science Foundation as a Technical Information Specialist for the Office of Polar Programs and has had the great opportunity to go to Antarctica twice and Greenland once in support of the research community. He enjoys living in Bethesda and has taken courses at the Writer's Center. David enjoys swimming, traveling, reading, and working on committees at his condo. His major interest, however, is the arts and all it encompasses---from symphony, to film, to museum treks to live theatre. He counts having lunch with Lillian Gish and meeting Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Liza Minnelli and Sandy Dennis as some of the more exciting encounters of his life.