Chicago Theatre Review
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling
Outside Mullingar – Northlight Theatre
John Patrick Shanley (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Moonstruck” and the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright of “Doubt”) has written a tightly constructed, charmingly romantic fable about four stubborn people and, ultimately, the power of love. Set in rural Ireland, the story, inspired by the playwright’s Irish cousins, revolves around two neighboring, elderly adults and their 40-something offspring. It’s about a farm, about the relationship between these two dwindling families and about how loneliness can be sent packing when love is invited into one’s life.
Aoife Muldoon has just buried her husband Chris, and she and her neighbor and friend Tony Reilly are reminiscing about family and future over a cup of tea. Rosemary Muldoon, Aoife’s daughter, is outside the farmhouse enjoying a smoke in the rain when Anthony, Tony’s shy adult son, steps outside to reluctantly pay his respects. Words are exchanged and memories are ignited. Soon, a few years advance and both parents pass on. A year or so later, Anthony pays Rosemary a visit. It’s the first time in forever since Anthony’s been inside his neighbor’s home, but the years and animosities drizzle away like the falling rain outside. Reluctant declarations and disclosures are made and, as one would hope, the play ends happily.
Shanley’s autobiographical one-act is a tart, little slice of warm soda bread, with just a dollop of sweet butter melting into its nooks and crannies. It’s a simple, sympathetic story about two lonely people who finally bear their souls and discover that, after many years of avoidance, they complete each other. It’s an unpretentious little comic drama that could take place almost anywhere, but is made more beautiful being told in its Irish lilt.
BJ Jones has directed this irresistibly idyllic and deceptively rich play with heart and reverence. As unaffected as Shanley’s play, Kevin Depinet’s set is rustic and uncluttered, easily shifting from one home to the other, with one lovely moment set in the rain outside the Reilly barn. Andrew Hansen’s moody sound design helps create the right ambience, enhanced by JR Lederle’s subtle lighting.
Mark L. Montgomery, so delightful in Goodman’s recent “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” is excellent as Anthony. His ability to convey vulnerability and yearning in a masculine physique that belies such sensitivity is a tribute to this actor’s talent. Mr. Montgomery creates a giant man-child, deserving of the audience’s empathy and hope. Chicago favorite Kate Fry, so powerful in Writers “Hedda Gabler,” is unflinchingly strong and determined as Rosemary. In this short 90-minute story, the audience observes a headstrong, almost icy young woman gradually evolve into a determined, intelligent girl, still hopeful for romance. In Ms. Fry’s stalwart, plucky portrayal we see a woman who learns to give in to her emotions. Together these two actors bring to life a couple of lonely people for whom the audience cheers.
Chicago veteran actor William J. Norris brings a crusty, stubbornness to Tony Reilly. Knowing that his son’s future is financially secure, Tony’s more concerned about where the family farm will go when he leaves this world. Although he would love his neighbor’s daughter Rosemary and his son Anthony united and their farms combined, Tony doesn’t see this as realistic. In a final attempt to persuade Anthony, Tony confesses that when he first got married he wasn’t in love with his wife. That came later. Annabel Armour, so delightfully funny in Remy Bumppo’s “The Clean House” and “Northanger Abbey,” convincingly plays a much older character in this production. As Aoife Muldoon, Ms. Armour plays an elderly widow who cares deeply about the futures of her daughter, her neighbor and his son, as well as about the land. In Ireland, it seems it’s always about the land and inheritance. Ms. Armour is tough and truthful with a dry wit and a succinct outspokenness. She deeply loves her unruly daughter, however, in spite of everything Rosemary says and does. The relationship between these two mature adults forms the catalyst for the journey that the younger couple will make.
John Patrick Shanley’s autobiographical play is a charming, bittersweet slice of life. Set in rural Ireland, this little fable about loneliness and love, family and friends makes a rewarding evening filled with warmth and hope. Despite the play’s ever-falling Irish rain, this sweet little story will bring a ray of welcome sunshine to Chicago theatergoers.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 13-April 19 by Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 847-673-6300 or by going to www.northlight.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.