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A CurtainUp Review
The play centers on the public auction of four acres of prime farming land in a small village in Ireland. The land is being sold by the widow Maggie Butler (Paddy Croft), who only wants the best price she can get from the sale. The problem is that for the past five years, grazing rights to the land have been held by "The Bull" McCabe (Marty Maguire), who is none too pleased at the prospect of seeing the land go elsewhere--especially to foreign "land-grabbers," for whom he holds a deep and unyielding hatred. The Bull, a blustering, threatening man who claims to be related to half the residents of the village, bullies the village auctioneer Mick Flanagan (Malachy Cleary) into rigging the auction in his favor--but when Englishman William Dee (played in this performance by the director, Ciaran O'Reilly) arrives determined to win the land for his business, The Bull decides he needs to take matters into his own hands.
The Irish Rep's trademark professionalism is everywhere in evidence here. The set and sound design, by Charles Corcoran and Zachary Williamson respectively, are excellent (the change from the interior of an Irish pub to the outside field, complete with raven cries and wafting mist, is particularly impressive). Jason Lyons' lighting design throughout is superb. When the second act begins with light shining through the mist on The Bull and his son Tadhg (Tim Ruddy), waiting in the field to "give a fright" to the unknowing Dee, the involuntary shivers in the audience are palpable. Martha Hally's costumes are simple but effective. And director O'Reilly makes excellent use of limited space, providing good views and interesting contrasts in height and build through his placement of actors in each scene.
The actors do a creditable job as an ensemble. Cleary is good (if not overly subtle) as Flanagan, and Ruddy as Tadhg, Croft as Butler and Ken Jennings as "The Bird" O'Donnell (a weak-minded, conniving drunkard) are convincing as well. O'Reilly as Dee and Craig Baldwin as Father Murphy also give quality performances, and John O'Creagh and Karen Lynn Gorney as Mr. and Mrs. Dandy McCabe do a good job in limited parts. Only Paul Nugent seems to be over his head in his role as Flanagan's son Leamy, though, to be fair, the part doesn't give him much to work with. On the other end of the spectrum, Orlagh Cassidy is exceptional as Flanagan's wife Maimie. By turns delightful, then enraged at her cowardly and self-centered husband, Cassidy gives by far the production's best performance. Maguire communicates the threatening undercurrent of The Bull expertly. The thick stick he carries is an echo of his own unyielding will and barely submerged rage. The one thing missing in his portrayal is a lower key. After watching two hours of The Bull rage, storm, and bully his way around the stage one wonders what has kept him alive for this long, and this one-note delivery makes his later behavior (when regret is called for) difficult to buy. Richard Harris's version of The Bull in the 1990 film of The Field shows a much more nuanced portrayal.
After what I've said in praise of the quality design, direction and acting, it's hard to see what could keep this production from being exceptional. . .but unfortunately the second half drags, a substantial drop off from the energy of the first act. This may simply be a problem with the play itself. What separates Keane from the Irish playwriting greats like Friel, Shaw, Synge and O'Casey is their ability (Shaw doesn't always get it right) to understand the importance of pacing and getting on with the plot, and trusting an audience to understand the message of the play while doing so. Here we are unnecessarily and repeatedly hit over the head with the moral of the story, and when the ending does come it is abrupt and unconvincing.
Despite these negatives, there is an elemental power about The Field, and the company does an excellent job of tapping into that power as much as it can. We are shown the best and worst of the Irish soul, passion and loyalty opposed to bullying and suspicious provincialism. It's a credit to O'Reilly and the rest of his ensemble that audience members are likely to remember this glimpse into the Irish heart for a long time after leaving the appropriately green-walled theater on West 22nd Street.
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