The three short one-acts that comprise “A Night with Lady G” offer a rarely seen glimpse into the roots of modern Irish theater. No one – or no one in America – produces the plays of Lady Augusta Gregory nowadays, even though she wrote or translated more than 40 of them around the turn of the 1900s, when they were enormously popular in Ireland.
Lady Gregory took Irish mythology and turned it into theater, but in other works she depicted the daily lives of Irish farmers and peasants – much of the population at the time – and captured their beautifully simple street talk and their mannerisms, leaving a record of Irish life at the time. It’s those down-home plays that the Irish Heritage Theatre is producing in “Lady G,” and for their language alone I enjoyed them.
The production itself is uneven, because the largest piece, “Spreading the News,” comes off like an engine whose timing goes in spurts and gurgles – if it were a bit smoother and with broader characterizations, it would be funnier and seem more real and less of a staged story. “Spreading the News,” with a cast of nine, is especially notable because of its provenance – the play about gossip-mongering opened the now-vaunted Abbey Theatre in Dublin on Dec, 27, 1904. The theater itself was founded by Lady G and her buddy, William Butler Yeats.
Like all three plays, “Spreading the News” is a simple story – and now well-worn, because it’s been told so many different ways in the years since Lady G wrote it. A man runs through a fair to give another man the pitchfork he’d left behind, and the whole town becomes instantly caught up in a rumor that has the good Samaritan not returning the pitchfork, but pursuing its owner in order to stab him to death. It’s a funny idea embellished by the appearance of a magistrate, new to town, who looks down on the residents and ends up being caught in the web of assumptions the townspeople make.
“Spreading the News” is the middle of the three plays that run for a total of about 90 minutes, which includes an intermission. The opener of the evening is “The Workhouse Ward,” in which two elderly men (John Cannon and Steve Gulick) rock in their chairs in a Catholic-run pauper’s infirmary, and trade barbs to pass the time of day. It becomes apparent that the two were neighbors through their lives, and not particularly good ones. The last play is “The Rising of the Moon,” a little piece with the staying power of champagne bubbles, but evocative in its depiction of a dark night in a seaside Irish outpost.
In addition to the two actors I cited, there’s nice work here from Kate Danaher, Emily Mattison and Jason Eric Klemm. John Gallagher and Peggy Mecham directed the one-acts and also designed the sets. There’s little room for large-scale production on the third floor of Plays & Players, where “A Night with Lady G” runs, but Gallagher and Mecham do fine with minimal settings, particularly in the first play and the last.
_“A Night with Lady G” runs through Oct. 25 at Plays & Players, Delancey Street between 17th and 18th Streets. www.irishheritagetheatre.org.