Regular readers of this blog will likely find it unsurprising to learn that I am a Jane Austen fan. There’s a special pleasure involved in reading Austen’s writing, and it has little to do with her plots. Austen aficionados like myself love reading her novels for the acerbically observed characters, the sharp and ironic narrative voice, the witty twists in detail in her writing (which reward rereadings in a way that plot twists rarely do), and the palpable tension she creates between her characters’ reserved social selves and their yearning, dreaming, desiring private selves.
John Shanley’s play Outside Mullingar (currently playing at City Theatre) affords a pleasure very much akin to reading an Austen novel. Like those novels, the plot is conventional – one might even say predictable, if not for the fact that familiarity with contemporary Irish drama has trained many of us to anticipate an unexpectedly macabre or black ending from “Irish plays” – and where the play delights and surprises is in its idiosyncratic characters and in its gleefully candid language. Outside Mullingar tells the story of two neighboring Irish farm families whose proximity to each other has given rise to a style of speaking that allows them, as Shanley notes, “to say awful things to each other. With charm.” On one farm live the Reillys – elderly Tony (Noble Shropshire) and his middle-aged son Anthony (Ron Menzel), who assumes he will inherit the farm when his father kicks the bucket (Tony’s waffling on this matter is one of the play’s many conflicts). On the other, the Muldoons – aging mother Aoife (Mary Rawson) and her adult daughter Rosemary (Megan Byrne), whose ownership of a parcel of land that cuts the Reillys off from the road represents a sore point in the two families’ history. All four are, in their individual ways, hardened pragmatists, resigned (in what seems like a very rural Irish way) to the idea that happiness is for other people. There does not seem, at first, to be much room for the frivolities of romance in their world, but it eventually blooms, and it’s the way Shanley has rendered the love story that most reminds me of Austen, in particular of her knack for bringing us to feel the pulsing, beating heart beneath what looks like a closed and hardened façade. For Rosemary is much like a modern-day Anne Elliot (from Persuasion): well past the bloom of youth, she’s been carrying the torch for the oblivious Anthony for years, and the pentupness of her desire is excruciating not only to her, but to us as well.
There is, however, much about this play (and especially this production) that is (dare I say it?) better than Austen. For one thing, Shanley’s writing is far more direct and, as a result, much much more laugh-out-loud (as opposed to smirk-and-grin) funny. Moreover, the bluntness of the characters also allows for oblique expression of a great deal of deeply felt passion, and the ensemble does a masterful job of conveying how these characters’ hardbitten candor masks roiling subterranean emotional turmoil. Rawson and Shropshire are not only acerbically funny as the stubbornly fatalist Aoife and Tony, they also bring tender dimension to their portrayals of two people who have little to look forward to and much to look back upon. Menzel is poignantly verklemmt in his interpretation of Anthony, a man so afraid of having his heart broken that he has become a stranger to his deepest longing, and Byrne is absolutely brilliant as the tough-on-the-outside, desperate-on-the-inside Rosemary, making lightning-quick shifts in mood and tone that rock us from glee to despair. I’ll confess, dear reader, that at moments in the final scene it was hard to discern whether I was laughing so hard that I was crying, or whether that laughter was coming through my tears.
There are places where the writing veers into the sentimental – in particular, in the play’s second section, during the “deathbed” scene between Tony and Anthony – and a less discerning director might have allowed such moments to turn unbearably maudlin. But Tracy Brigden (who, in case you missed the news, was recently named a finalist for the 2014 Zelda Fichandler Award) keeps the spikes on so that the action doesn’t get mired in treacle, and the final section of the play – which delivers the romantic goods, so to speak – bristles with an unexpected and hilariously delightful thorniness.