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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The story takes us back fifty years to a County Kerry farm kitchen that lacks even the simplest amenities like a real stove. Its conflict smacks of old-fashioned melodrama. A beautiful young girl (Wrenn Schmidt) is mysteriously orphaned at birth and living with an uncle (Aidan Redmond) whose mean-spirited and greedy wife (Fiana Toibin) is determined to enrich herself and get rid of the girl and her loving grandmother (Terry Donnolly) by marrying her off to a repulsive but well-to-do old farmer. (Christopher Joseph Jones).
The play has some plot holes and a somewhat too predictable and melodramatic ending. However, Ciarán O'ReillIy, who also directed the revival of Keane's The Field, has downplayed the dated and melodramatic elements and highlighted the timeless theme of how poverty can make ordinary people extraordinarily cruel. Add the atmospheric staging and robust performances that are Irish Rep trademarks and you have another don't miss it for theater that consistently brings a bit of Ireland to the heart of Manhattan's Chelsea district.
Of the 9-member cast Fiana Toibin is particularly memorable with her chilling but deeply nuanced portrait of Keane's villainess. A scene in which she browbeats the vulnerable young Sive (Wrenn Schmidt, perfect as the lovely young innocent) into caving into her plans. Her weapons are not physical but bitter revelations and lies that remind one of the abuse by daughter of mother in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, written by one of Keane's heirs, Martin McDonagh. While Toibin's Mena is not a physical abuser, her psychological tactics are devastating. Immoral as Mena's willingness to literally sell Sive into matrimonial hell is, her nastyness clearly stems from her own deep frustration with a lifetime of poverty and an unsatisfying marriage. Contrary to what she thinks, even without Sive and her mother-in-law in the house, it's unlikely that Mena's husband would ever give her the affection she craves. And as Mena manipulates her niece, so the play's second villain, the crafty matchmaker Thomasheen Sean Rua (Patrick Fitzgerald, excellent as the one character who doesn't seem to have a redeeming feature ), lures her into promoting the beauty and the beast match with the promise of money.
As directed with pace but not undue speed by O'ReilIy, the assorted characters are allowed to come to full life which keeps us engaged in their story. Even before the drama begins, the melancholy mood is established by two musicians (James Barry and Donie Carroll) who don't just perform a prologue concert of Irish songs but appear in the play as wandering musicians. These "tinkerers" like the old-time town criers know everything that goes on in a village and their songs serve as a chorus-like commentary on the impending tragedy. Barry, whom I've seen first as a student and later as a major player in Berkshire Theatre Festival production, manages to be riveting in this small role.
Also impressive is Terry Donnelly who, given previous roles I've seen her in at the Irish Rep, could easily play much younger romantic parts, but who is nevertheless convincing as the feisty but powerless grandmother who tries desperately to save Sive from the fate Mena has planned for her.
The fact that this is a small house but that neither Sive or Nanna whose rooms are right off the kitchen seem to hear Fiona and the matchmaker's schemes discussed in voices well above a hard-to-hear whisper is one of the plot holes I mentioned above. And with Nanna repeatedly sticking a lit pipe in her dress pocket, it's a wonder that the whole family didn't burn up long berfore this greed-driven tragedy could explode.
Links to Reviews of Other Plays by John B. Keane
The Man from Clare -Los Angeles
The Field-Irish Rep
Try onlineseats.com for great seats to
The Little Mermaid
Shrek The Musical
The Playbill Broadway YearBook
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide