Wednesday, September 29, 2010

'Wife to James Whelan’: A morality tale of ambition

New York -- The Abbey Theatre, the National Theatre of Ireland, is a cherished institution in Ireland, and renowned in much of the Western world. Mint Theater in Manhattan, while not quite in the same stratosphere, seems pushing into the Abbey’s rarified space with its production of “Wife to James Whelan.”

In the case of the three-act play, Mint has certainly demonstrated superior judgment. The Abbey, under the direction of one-time Blue Shirt Ernest Blythe, in the early 1940s rejected the play, by Waterford-born Teresa Deevy (above left), deeming its characters too reminiscent of those in an earlier play of hers at the theater. The decision led Deevy on a spiral to obscurity, despite the fact that she was then seen as one of Ireland’s most promising playwrights, with the Abbey staging of six of her plays in seven years in the 1930s. She died virtually unknown in Ireland in 1963, aged 68.

“Wife,” whose extended run ends this Sunday, offers a rare and welcome glimpse not only into the burgeoning sensibilities of 1930s middle-class Ireland, but on the difficulties of connecting with a life’s partner, and what that failure can come to mean. That, of course, is a universal theme, and the Mint production, led by artistic director Jonathan Bank, presents it with unstinting poignancy and panache.

Act 1 of the play is set at a gathering spot in the Irish village of Kilbeggan. Tom Carey, the older, steadier hand in the octet of characters that populate the play, is seen reading a copy of the Westmeath Herald, an interesting prop considering there is a Kilbeggan in Westmeath, which lies in the proverbial “heart” of the country. The locals are speculating that James Whelan, one of 12 in town who vied for a coveted job in Dublin, may get the nod.

Whelan, in fact, is off to Dublin. The ambitious 25-year-old, portrayed by Shawn Fagan, and his girl, Nan Bowers (Janie Brookshire) must now determine exactly what their relationship means to each other. With Whelan off in the morning, Nan suggests that James seems a bit too happy at the prospect of leaving her.

“An old cap, yes, that’s what you are, nothing better,” Whelan tells her, with only partial conviction, his exasperation and anger growing as he senses Nan’s skepticism about their relationship.

Whelan is ready to move on, one feels, though clearly he is putting a happy face atop his ambivalence. His impending move redefines his relationships with all the villagers, and not for the better.

“You never give in, you never think of another person,” Nan scolds Whelan. Later, Nan, with typical small-town ennui, cautions Whelan before he leaves, “There’s no use trying anything.” He’s not buying it, though, despite the hard economic times.

Acts 2 and 3 of the 150-minute-long play are set in a Dublin office seven years later. Whelan is now a successful entrepreneur, intoxicated by what he senses are his boundless opportunities for success. But there seems something missing for Whelan. Meanwhile, other ex-villagers, including Nan, become supplicants and pawns in his climb to achieve his version of “freedom.”

Despite the sober theme, there are abundant comic touches in the play, particularly in scenes with blonde actress Liv Rooth, who portrays vamp Nora Keane. Her self-made father gave Whelan his first break in the big city, and now Nora sees the hard-driving Whelan as a suitable match for her bourgeois pedigree.

In one of the play’s many light-hearted moments, Nora asks Whelan flirtatiously, “Would you be a hard master?” as she joins the queue looking to capitalize on his drive and success. Whelan, though, seems threatened by her overture. We are invited to consider, then, even if Whelan won’t, “has he really moved on from Nan?” And is “freedom” really free? The search for answers informs the rest of the play.

Nan, now a young widow, returns to Whelan’s life at the opening of Act 2. In a series of powerful, poignant and even explosive encounters, the pair must redefine their relationship, and reassess their choices.

Fagan’s work as Whelan is haunting and commanding. In Acts 2 and 3, Fagan’s character becomes a force of nature, relentless in his ambition, which seems ready to steamroll over any and all. His hard-charging character comes to display authentic ticks, emblematic of a man driven and oblivious – Whelan licking his lips, mindlessly inserting his tongue into his cheek, and on occasion snorting.

Bravo, in fact, to the entire ensemble, for bringing to life the riveting world created by Deevy, who lost her hearing at age 20, a loss that improbably inspired her to pursue drama. Aidan Redmond, the only cast member hailing from Ireland, portrays Tom Carey. Rosie Benton as Kate Moran, Jeremy S. Holm as Bill McGafferty, Thomas Matthew Kelley as Jack McClinsey, and Jon Fletcher as Kate’s brother “Apollo” round out the exceptional cast.

“You can move or stand still, but you’re (always) up against something,” Whelan tells his friends as he readies himself for the move to Dublin. That “something” is what this Mint production leverages in this remarkably astute and adept production. -- Ger


Teresa Deevy, deaf, very talented, draws spotlight after Abbey rebuff

The Mint Theater Presents 'Wife to James Whelan'

Ernest Blythe

3rd Annual Festival of Irish Theatre, Sept. 7-Oct. 3

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