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The Mountains Look Different

I don't want to talk about London, nor my job . . . . I'm tired, see? I want a rest. I don't want to have to think about nothing for a bit. Nothing at all.
— Bairbre, the reformed London prostitute, searching for a new life in her native Ireland in Micheal mac Liammoir's The Mountains Look Different
Jesse Pennington and Brenda Meaney (Photo by Todd Cerveris)
Bairbre Joyce, protagonist of Micheal mac Liammoir's 1948 drama The Mountains Look Different, is one of those poor souls habitually relying on the kindness of strangers. She's a victim of her own poor choices, but also of the disparate moral standards her society applies to women and men. That society is Ireland in the middle of the last century; it could as easily be the United States or Canada of the same era.

The admirable Mint Theater Company is giving The Mountains Look Different a belated American premiere. This fleetly moving production is directed by Aidan Redmond and features nine topflight actors, with Brenda Meaney and Jesse Pennington especially noteworthy as Bairbre and her new husband, Tom.

Best known as co-founder of Dublin's Gate Theatre, mac Liammoir wrote this play at the same time Tennessee Williams was writing A Streetcar Named Desire; and Bairbre has much in common with the similarly rootless Blanche DuBois. Bairbre, like Blanche, is in retreat from her era's disparagement of women whose moral choices have strayed from the straight and narrow; and, like Blanche, she's in a delicate emotional state, "want[ing] a rest" and the chance to avoid "hav[ing] to think" about anything "for a bit."

Born in a rural spot near the west coast of Ireland, Bairbre left home at 16, after the death of her parents, and headed for London. With the limited employment opportunities for young women in that day (and especially for young women of little learning or polish), she took domestic-service positions but quickly lost them. She started turning tricks, found whoring lucrative (as least in comparison to the respectable employment available to her). Thirteen years later, Bairbre is conscious that her physical charms are a wasting asset, and she longs to escape the life of the streets. To that end, she has married in haste. Her groom, Tom Grealish (Jesse Pennington), is also from Ireland and knows nothing of her unchaste past.

Mac Liammoir's plot turns on a far-fetched coincidence. (This is not a spoiler.) When Bairbre meets her father-in-law, Martin (Con Horgan), he recognizes her (though she doesn't immediately recognize him). Puritanical and self-righteous, Martin knows Bairbre's secret because, several years before, on his only visit to London, she solicited him in a pub. Recently widowed and lonely, Martin rose to her bait and has felt guilty about his conduct ever since.

"I've a fierce long memory," Martin tells Bairbre. He views that now-distant night of paid pleasure as "the one shame of my life." And he sets out to demolish the newlyweds' relationship and drive Bairbre away from the village.

The Mint is noted for championing unknown works by noteworthy authors. Mac Liammoir (1899-1978) is a monumental figure in Irish drama — actor, director, and writer, as well as impresario of the Gate. The Mountains Look Different was successful in Dublin seven decades ago. In light of the author's prominence and the play's juicy principal roles, it's odd that it hasn't been seen in the United States before now.

In writing The Mountains Look Different, Mac Liammoir's aim was tragedy. According to the Mint's dramaturgs, the playwright was inspired by Anna Christie, Eugene O'Neill's 1922 Pulitzer Prize play about a hooker reunited, after years of estrangement, with the father who believes she's pure as the driven snow. Anyone remembering Anna's brash opening line — "Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby" — will recognize something of O'Neill's heroine in mac Liammoir's steely protagonist. Responding to an untoward remark from a field hand, for instance, Bairbre brays: "What's that you said? You be careful of that slit in your mug or maybe you'll get another, see."

Mac Liammoir's principal characters are boldly imagined; their dialogue, though often overwrought, is arresting and features colorful regional expressions that require close listening from the audience. Were the characters and the situation believable, the play might be a two or three handkerchief affair; but the outlandish coincidence upon which the story hangs and the inordinate number of horrific complications that pile up in the five-or-so hours depicted in the play's three acts make this more grim fairy tale than tragedy.

The Mint is welcoming the late arrival of mac Liammoir’s play with a superb New York premiere. The production has an exquisitely romantic, if antiquated, look. Scenic designer Vicki R. Davis has replicated the kind of set the Gate Theatre would have utilized in 1948 — gracefully painted flats for the exterior of the Grealishes’s house, as well as the interior, and a drop behind with the mountains painted on it. This might have passed for realism 70 years ago; to a contemporary eye, it calls to mind illustrations in a beautiful old storybook.

The play takes place on St. John’s Eve, when the superstitious villagers light bonfires for the fertility of their crops (and, presumably, for the fertility of the citizens of child-bearing age, as well). The Grealishes’ domestic drama plays out against the backdrop of various rituals and traditions peculiar to this midsummer event. The production’s creative team — Christian DeAngelis (lights), M. Florian Staab (sound), Heather Martin Bixler (music director), and Andrea Varga (costumes) — conjures vividly the atmosphere of the festival; and Redmond’s direction balances the chaotic emotions of the three principals — father, son, and new daughter-in-law — and the chaotic activity of the villagers, represented by five of the nine actors (Ciaran Byrne, Liam Forde, McKenna Quigley Harrington, Cynthia Mace, and Daniel Marconi).

The Mountains Look Different is a striking museum piece, a glimpse of middling Irish drama from the middle of the last century. As performed by the Mint’s splendid cast, the play is engaging but never compelling because the script, though artful, is as unconvincing as those beautifully painted, old-fashioned stage flats.

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The Mountains Look Different by Micheal mac Liammoir
Directed by Aidan Redmond
Cast: Ciaran Byrne (Priest), Liam Forde (Batty Wallace), McKenna Quigley Harrington (Bridin), Con Horgan (Martin Grealish), Cynthia Mace (Maire), Daniel Marconi (Bartley), Brenda Meaney (Bairbre Joyce Grealish), Paul O'Brien (Matthew Conroy), Jesse Pennington (Tom Grealish)
Sets: Vicki R. Davis
Costumes: Andrea Varga
Lights: Christian DeAngelis
Sound: M. Florian Staab
Production Stage Manager: Jeff Myers
Running Time: 2 hours, including one intermission
The Mint at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Avenue)
From 5/30/19; opening 6/20/19; closing 7/14/19.
Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday evenings at 7:30pm, with matinees Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday at 2pm. No Wednesday evening performances except 6/19/19 at 7:30pm.
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 6/13/19 press performance

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