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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Winnie (Michele Tauber) is an unconventional nun working with the poor children of the area. She swigs down a pint of Guinness and smokes her fags in the privacy of her own home. Winnie swears and calls on the most unlikely of saints such as St. Epsom of Bath while she fills the stage with warmth and vivacity. Her dances and Cork dialect are the product of Irish origins and it seems hard to reconcile her vigor and lusty spirit with a health issue which she dismisses with an unconcerned shrug.
Stephen, a reticent middle aged factory worker, accompanies her spoon playing as they sing raucous, traditional Irish jigs and open up their souls through the magic of the music. He is stuck in a dreary job and cares for an ungrateful father; anything which disrupts the pattern of his staid life is a threat but he is comfortable with Winnie.
Into this Friday free-for-all a brick is thrown through the window and the eccentric Winnie marches out to corner the perpetrator— 15-year-old Kayleigh, a motherless, former student and lost soul is soon forgiven rather than chastised, in spite of Stephen's objections, and convinced by Winnie to join in the weekly frolic.
Michael Sean McGuinness as Stephen is the laconic guitar player who, though subdued, can flare up as when Winnie and Kayleigh, both forces of nature, goad him to leave his comfort zone. His reserved dignity in the face of the two women is one of the many comic touches.
Emery Henderson as Kayleigh is a remarkable young woman whose waif-like persona changes the balance of power among the trio. Her affection for the two older people and amusement at an inability to cope with Apps and change adds to the comedic coalition of this unlikely group of misfits. Henderson's voice has a sweet lilt of sadness and wonder that contrasts nicely with the musicality of the others.
As they tentatively begin to play music together age differences disappear and attitudes shift; the joy of living creeps into their music making and their lives take on a new glow. In fact, Sister Winnie is so carried away that she proposes they sing for the town's Easter concert, has posters made and calls the group ""The Shenanigans." Stephen is horrified.
This is a small, soft play that does not offer shocking revelations, but rather tells the story we expect in a very satisfying way. It reaffirms the need for family and acceptance however we may find it. Directed naturalistically by James Warwick, the life of each character unfolds gently as they shimmer into being. It is almost as if the audience is a welcomed member of this little tribe seeking shelter from the problems everyone shares and in this story — sings. Warwick's actors are real; even their silences and breathing tell us what is within their hearts.
The set by Travis George is simple and effective in creating a cozy homey haven, replete with religious statues and Sacred Heart pictures. Mismatched furniture and rag rugs underscore the fact that in spite of her modest means the life of the home emanates from within the heart of Sister Winnie and her friends. Costume design by Heather Crocker Aulenback and lighting and sound by James McNamara round out a very pleasing atmospheric set of production values.
Wells' home town of Withernsea is the inspiration for this lovely, captivating 90 minute piece of theatre. Based on his own life, Wells once played in a folk band with family and friends for the weekly church social where people make music together, drink Guinness and tell stories. This is an old and honored tradition throughout the British Isles as well as Ireland. The songs themselves tell of struggles and resilience, which is exactly what translates into the play.
The fourth of Chester's 2017 summer season, Tom Well's Folk, ends a series of an extremely vital and unique choice of plays. Kudos to Daniel Elihu Kramer and staff for an exceptional theatrical experience this year!
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Folk by Tom Wells
Directed by James Warwick
Cast: Emery Henderson (Kayleigh) Michael Sean McGuinness (Stephen) Michele Tauber (Sister Winnie)
Scene design: Travis George
Costume design: Heather Crocker Aulenback
Lighting design and Sound design: James McNamara
Stage Manager: Keri Schultz
Music Consultant: Katryna Nields
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
From 8/17/17; closing 8/27/17
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at August 18, 2017 performance
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