Note: this is a post about a preview performance.
The beating heart of John B. Keane’s play Sharon’s Grave is a mythical story of his own devising. Told to us by the mentally challenged Neelus Conlee (Alec Silberblatt), it explains how a deep hole in a seacliff in southwestern Ireland came to be known as “Sharon’s grave.” The story goes something like this: in ancient times, the beautiful and beloved Sharon was lured to and toppled into the hole by her jealous handmaid, the ugly, deformed Siofra. But at the last moment, Sharon grabbed hold of Siofra and dragged her along to her death. Ever since, their cries and screams can be heard emanating from the hole – by Neelus, at any rate – and legend says that their cries that will only be silenced when they are each delivered a lover – a handsome and devoted one for Sharon, and an ugly evil one for Siofra.
Keane’s play interweaves that legend with two other stories that are more readily connected to everyday reality, but have enough in common with Neelus’s fairy tale to deserve a mythical-poetic treatment. On one hand there is the quietly budding romance between a traveling thatcher, Peadar Minogue (Byron Anthony) and Neelus’s sister Trassie (Karen Baum). On the other, there is the family feud between Trassie and her congenitally misshapen, exceedingly self-centered cousin Dinzie (James FitzGerald). Dinzie is waiting for Trassie’s father Donal to die so that he can take over their farm, believing that possession of a landholding will help him snare the wife he so desperately desires. When Donal does die, Dinzie machinates to have Neelus declared dangerous so that he can be sent away to an institution, as a way of forcing Trassie out of her home. But, as it turns out, the only danger Neelus poses is to Dinzie himself, and Keane’s interwoven fairy tale ends precisely as Neelus always so fervently believed it would.
The play is beautifully written, with a poetry in the language that allows it to take flight and make large and transcendent conflicts out of the characters’ relatively small individual struggles. But the tonal register of Aoife Spillane-Hinks’s direction is uneven; it doesn’t feel as if all of the characters are inhabiting the same theatrical world. FitzGerald gives an intense and shudder-inducing performance as the emotionally unhinged Dinzie, but his fairy-tale villain feels a bit oversized against the more subdued performances of Baum and Anthony as the shy lovers. And their relative realism makes some of the events of the play hard to swallow, particularly in the second act, when Trassie seems to have forgotten that her cousin is out to have her brother committed and agrees to have him examined by the eccentric quack healer (Martin Giles) that Dinzie has sent. I might have found this believable in a fairy-tale world, but in the fairly realistic realm inhabited by Trassie and Peadar the scene defied my attempts to suspend disbelief. As the play moved toward its (rather predictable) resolution, I found myself wishing that Hinks had allowed the beating heart of the title’s tale to circulate more of a mythical-magical element into every aspect of the production.