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Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory
  Artists from all corners come to Coole Park. I don't know quite when, I decided to make a large copper beach tree in my garden my visitor's book but I did and I provided the pen knife to carve their autographs.— Lady Augusta Gregory
Una Clancy, and John Keating - Photo credit: Carol Rosegg
Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory, which just opened at the Irish Repertory Theatre's basement theater, may well be the best antidote for those mid-winter blues. Meticulously directed by Ciaran O'Reilly, who's also the company's producing director, it investigates the formidable woman who was known as the grand dame of the Irish Literary Revival and co-founder of The Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

This multi-faceted portrait of Lady Augusta Gregory (nee Persse) is based on her own writings, with additional material by Ciaran O'Reilly. It features the excellent Una Clancy in the nominal role, with three supporting actors—James Russell, Terry Donnelly, and John Keating--who each take on multiple parts with ease.

This cradle-to grave biodrama gives the audience a bird's eye view of the legendary figure born on the Ides of March in 1852 in Galway and departed the world on May 23rd, 1932. It takes you on a whirlwind tour of her public and private life, spotlights her relationships with the major personages of the Irish Literary Revival, and shoehorns in two of her short folk plays to boot.

If there is an Achilles' heel in Lady G, it is in its sprawling dramaturgy and expansive "whisperings." Yes, it's difficult to absorb the entire arc of her 80-year life that spans from Galway. . . to Dublin . . .to Egypt . . .to New York. . .to Boston. . . to Philadelphia, all in one sitting. But O'Reilly's light-handed treatment of the material is its saving grace. He doesn't paint Lady Gregory as a dour Victorian widow but as a vibrant passionate woman who had a lot of fun in her.

O'Reilly has smartly fused elements of the conventional bio-drama with the surreal premise of having Lady Gregory as a time-traveler from her own era to the present day. Although this conceit wears thin now and then, it mostly works, allowing time and space to dissolve as the narrative leaps forward, backward, and every which way.

When the lights go up, you meet Lady Gregory, dressed in her trademark black dress (costumes by David Toser), introducing herself and inviting you to listen to her story. She immediately reveals that as part of her contract with the Irish Rep, she had the management agree to having a sampling of her folk plays tucked into the presentation.

Although this at first might seem like she's shamelessly trying to plug her own work, it ideally captures Lady Gregory as the go-getter she was and as a woman who never hides her light under a bushel basket. And why should she? She wrote over 40 plays and many translations and books of Irish folklore. True, her plays never gained the critical stature enjoyed by her contemporaries William Butler Yeats, John Synge, and Sean O'Casey. But wasn't it Synge who so admired Lady Gregory's mastery of the Irish idiom that he wrote her a letter telling her that he read her Cuchulain as part of "his daily bread."

Clancy's Lady Gregory controls the narrative throughout and peppers into her Irish yarns quite a few millennial references. She describes her childhood home in Roxborough. County Galway, as a mid-nineteenth century counterpart to the estate in the film Downton Abbey, though less fancy and with a pesky rat population.

Lady Gregory adds even more texture and flavor when she later offers audience members slices of her Barmbrack cake just before intermission. She explains that she began baking this cake to celebrate First Nights at the Abbey Theatre. But, in fair warning to any gluten-conscious theatergoers in the W. Whether you choose to eat or abstain, everybody can enjoy the ballad "Lady Gregory's Cake" that the company deliciously sings to wrap up Act 1.

At the top of Act 2, things take on a more serious tone as Lady Gregory recounts her memory of the historic rioting at the First Night performance of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre. This play, whose theme centers on the nature of hero-worship, was largely misinterpreted by the Irish people (the play would later create a rumpus when on tour in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia), who felt it was an insult to Irish womanhood and virtue. Lady Gregory notes that this theatrical event tested her mettle, especially when the public reports of the riots went "viral."

What really comes across in the piece, time and again, is that Lady Gregory not only was a playwright and folklorist, but the real anchor of the Celtic Movement. She famously turned her home Coole Park in Galway into the mecca for the Irish Literary Revival. And, unsurprisingly, some of the best scenes spotlight the goings on there with her famous guests, including William Butler Yeats (James Russell), John Synge, Sean O'Casey (John Keating), Edward Martyn, and other notables.

While the steeliness in Lady Gregory's personality is much in evidence, there are also scenes that reveal chinks in her armour. Yes, Lady Gregory had a passionate heart—and it could lead her down both good and not-so-good paths.

Obviously, it was a good turn of fate when she met and married her widower-neighbor, Sir William Gregory, a member of Parliament and then Governor of Ceylon, who was 35 years her senior. Her mother thought her fifth and youngest daughter was "plain" and destined for spinsterhood. But Sir Gregory saw her sterling character, and loved her for it.

Following her marriage to Sir Gregory, however, Lady Gregory's judgment sometimes faltered. And when on a trip with her husband to Cairo, Egypt, she fell in love with the philanderer Wilfred Blunt (John Keating), an acquaintance of her husband, political activist, and married. Their affair lasted "seventeen months, three weeks and two days" and inspired her to write a sequence of poems that Blunt would later publish as "A Woman's Sonnets." Did Sir William ever suspect his wife's infidelity? The jury is still out on that question.

Lady Gregory's two short plays, Workhouse Ward and McDonough's Wife, which are imbedded into the fabric of Lady G, act like frosting for the larger theatrical confection. Having seen Lady Gregory's Rising of the Moon staged at the Irish Rep in 2018 as part of their program Three Short Irish Masterpieces, I don't think that Workhouse Ward and McDonough's Wife quite measure up to that dramatic gem that probes a Sergeant's conscience during the Irish troubles. That said, the aforementioned folk plays t are true samplings of Lady Gregory's talent, blending the sternest realism with Irish myths.

The first play-within-a-play is Workhouse Ward, surfaces midway through Act 1, with Lady Gregory morphing from narrator to stage-hand to assist in its smooth launching. It's sabout two old men (performed by Russell and Keating) in a poor house who incessantly insult and quarrel with each other. Its message? Well, Lady Gregory thinks that the "two scolding paupers are a symbol" for the people in Ireland and illustrates the old saying: "It is better to be quarreling than to be lonesome."

McDonough's Wife is staged midway through Act 2, and tells a macabre tale about a country wife who died in childbirth when her husband was away. This dark tale (performed by Clancy, Donnelly, Keating, and Russell) has an O'Henry-like twist at its ending that turns its bleak events into a brilliant defense of the artist.

Though Lady G does strain at its dramatic seams by cramming so many "whisperings," plus two folk tales, into the space of two hours and change. But with the entire cast performing it with a lilt in their voice and a spring in their step, you'll find much to like.

The production values are all in place. There's an economy of scenery that handsomely conjures up Coole Park and also can suggest other landscapes (set by Charlie Corcoran; lighting by Michael O'Connor). The dominant prop, of course, is a replication of the "autograph tree" at Coole Park that Lady Gregory used as her visitor's book, carving the initials of her illustrious visitors and those closest to her heart into its sacred bark.

Lady G is a fascinating study of the unforgettable Lady Gregory. Too bad the grande dame isn't alive to see it for herself.

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Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory by Lady Augusta Gregory with additional material by Ciaran O'Reilly
Directed by Ciaran O'Reilly
Cast: Ãna Clancy (Lady Gregory, Hag 2), Terry Donnelly (Mary Sheridan, Anne Horniman, Honor Donohoe, Widow Quinn, Narrator, Marian, Hag 1), John Keating (Wilfred Blunt, Edward Martyn, Michael Miskell, John Quinn, George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Roosevelt, Sean O'Casey, McDonough), and James Russell (William Butler Yeats, Sir William Gregory, Mike McInerney, Christy Mahon, Witness, Sheep Shearer).
Sets:  Charlie Corcoran
Lighting: Michael O'Connor
Costumes: David Toser
Sound: M. Florian Staab
Stage Manager: Jeff Davolt
Irish Repertory Theatre at the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Tickets: $45 -$50. Phone box office at 212-727-273 or online at
Performance schedule: Wednesday @ 3pm & 8pm; Thursday @ 7pm; Friday @ 8pm; Saturday @ 3pm & 8pm; Sunday @ 3pm
From 02/12/20; opening 02/19/20; closing 3/22/20.
Running time: 2 hours; 15 minutes with one intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan at the Sunday matinee press performance on 02/16/2020.

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