For an American playwright, John Patrick Shanley writes one heck of an Irish play. “Outside Mullingar,” in a radiant production by Philadelphia Theatre Company that opened Wednesday, has every Irish trimming – shots of humor and sparks of irascibility, an English whose particular beauty is unique to the Emerald Isle, and a healthy dose of introspection about life and death amid its forward-moving plot.
Shanley – he wrote the film “Moonstruck,” the play “Doubt” and others – manages to write a play that’s noisy and quiet at the same time, by modulating an ever-present intensity that director Mary B. Robinson exploits in a smart staging played close to the stage-front whenever the intensity heightens. Robinson, artistic director of the old Philadelphia Drama Guild, knows how to make even a small show like “Outside Mullingar” feel very large.
Shanley’s play is set in a tiny rural village about 10 miles from Mullingar, the administrative town for County Westmeath in central Ireland – it’s under an hour’s ride from Dublin, but a world away in Shanley’s rendering. There, two families own adjoining farms being run by their adult children – one, a diffident young man (played with a remarkably repressed fire by Anthony Lawton) and the other, a salt-of-the-heath, tenacious woman (the superb Kathleen McNenny, roiling all the way.)
The two have known each other, almost as antagonists, since they were kids. Each has a single living parent (Beth Dixon and David Howey, in fine-tuned portrayals that make their characters genuine) who needs attention, and whose presence keeps the two offspring somewhat locked into their pasts.
“Outside Mullingar” is, as it progresses, a love story – an unusually bottled-up one, but pop the top and there it is. It’s also beautifully constructed theater. And I don’t mean to trivialize the play to say, in the interest of accuracy, that it’s a date-night shoo-in if that’s the sort of thing you have in mind. There’s a lot of heart-wrenching cuddliness to its rough-hewn characters, some of it in the dialogue and some in the plot.
Outside Mullingar” played last season on Broadway, with an understated tone that made me want to reach from my seat to give it a poke or two. The Philadelphia Theatre Company production — with a sweeping farmland background and simple floating interior sets by Jason Simms, evocative incidental music by Christopher Colucci and mood-setting lighting by Dennis Parichy – feels anything but slow.
It’s effectively driven by Shanley’s dialogue, as punchy in some parts as it is touching in others. The show’s dialect coach, Melanie Julian, enhances that dialogue with an unmistakable stamp – it’s clear how the place has shaped its characters, how they speak, how they behave. The only way I can think of to get into Ireland more surely is a seat on Aer Lingus.
“Outside Mullingar,” produced by Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs through Dec. 28 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets. 215-985-0420 or www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.