Chicago Theatre Review
Irish Myth and Theatrical Tragedy
Deirdre of the Sorrows – City Lit
Famed Irish poet, playwright and folklore enthusiast John Millington Synge was the author of such important works as “In the Shadow of the Glen,” “Riders to the Sea” and his most significant drama during the Irish Literary Revival, “The Playboy of the Western World.” However, the talented, young Victorian writer contracted Hodgkin’s Disease and left this world at only 38 years of age. In his final years Synge was working on a new play that melded his love of Irish mythology and theatrical tragedy, but he passed away before it could be fully completed. His fiancee, actress Molly Allgood, and fellow Irish literary genius, William Butler Yeats, worked together to finish the work as an homage to their friend. The play then debuted at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1910, but it was last seen in Chicago a whole century ago.
Ireland’s Heroic Age is portrayed in a group of folk tales from Irish mythology that’s referred to as the Ulster Cycle, or the Red Branch Cycle. This series of stories and legends from medieval times is set around the reign of King Conchubor of Ulster. In Synge’s dramatic retelling, the fabled King has charged Lavarcham, a wise, elderly poet and nurse, to care for Deirdre in seclusion until she’s of an age to marry. Inspired by a prophecy that the young girl would grow up to become the most beautiful woman in Ulster, Conchubor chose the maiden to be his future queen. But Deirdre has her own ideas. She’s met and fallen in love with the handsome, young Irish warrior Naisi, who has traveled this night to Lavarcham’s cottage, accompanied by his two brothers, for the purpose of wedding Deirdre and taking her away from Ulster.
On the remote Scottish island of Alban, beautiful Deirdre and the three sons of Uisnech have dwelled for seven peaceful years. But their tranquility is shattered when Fergus, Conchubor’s loyal lackey, arrives at their home offering a promise of peace and forgiveness from the old King. Owen, a spy in the employ of the Ulster monarch, also skulks about Alban, trying to coerce Deidre into leaving Naisi. He attempts to bully her into reuniting with Conchubor and becoming Queen of Ulster. She again refuses the King’s wishes, but persuades her husband and his brothers to accompany her to the capital in order to accept Conchubor’s offer of truce. As in Greek tragedy, it seems ill-fated that Deirdre, Naisi, his brothers Ainnle and Ardan should enjoy long, happy lives together, and the story ends in tragedy.
Director Kay Martinovich has done a commendable job of making this early twentieth century classic tragedy feel almost contemporary. Despite being challenged by the play’s archaic-sounding poetic language, as well as an ancient Irish dialect that’s often foreign to the ear, Martinovich wisely focuses her production entirely on Deirdre. Attaching her story to the wit and willpower of this strong, young woman, the director creates an allegory that features a strong, admirable heroine. Despite its outcome, this medieval feminist can be seen as a positive, modern role model, a strong women for all seasons.
The cast is very good, particularly its actresses. Beginning with Natalie Joyce, seen recently in Remy Bumppo’s delightful “Born Yesterday.” She’s comely, robust and resourceful as Deirdre. An excellent young actor, possessed of poise and polish, Ms. Joyce is strong and beguiling as this headstrong young woman who wins everyone’s hearts. Morgan McCabe, an accomplished actress, and a welcome addition to any cast (and last seen in City Lit’s “The Sundial”), is terrific as the wise, maternal Lavarcham. She’s matched by the wonderful character actor, marssie Mencotti, as the Old Woman. Both of these veteran actresses could offer their own courses in creating a believable character who realistically comes to life before an audience.
A newcomer to City Lit is actor Tim Kidwell, in the commanding role of King Conchubor. Bearing a slight resemblance to film actor Donald Sutherland, Kidwell is powerful, blustery and full of unbridled determination in his desire to woo and wed Deirdre. As Naisi, Alex Pappas cuts a strong figure as the handsome young warrior who ultimately wins Deirdre’s heart. Ainnle and Ardan, Naisi’s two faithful, stalwart brothers, are played by Curtis Dunn and Mick LaRocca, nicely filling the bill. Mark Pracht towers above everyone as the King’s larger-than-life retainer, Fergus; Andrew Marikis is a conniving, ferret-like Owen; and Brian Sprague completes the cast as Conchurbor’s faithful soldier.
Veaji Kim has created a scenic design that adapts easily into three separate environments. Of particular note is the way in which the isolated roundhouse in Slieve Fuadh is depicted. Rachel Sypniewski’s period costumes give every character an authentic, medieval appearance. Carefully noting that Acts I and II are separated by seven years, she’s meticulously created a change of clothing for her entire cast. In particular, Ms. Sypniewski has designed a gorgeous, regal gown for Deirdre’s reunion with Conchurbor. And Catherine Gillespie has worked tirelessly in guiding her cast to recreate convincing olde Irish accents.
This opening of City Lit’s 38th season adheres to their credo of revitalizing and making accessible authors of literary imagination. This play presents a forgotten work of another language-oriented playwright with respect, imagination and distinction. The character of Deirdre and her world probably isn’t familiar to most theatergoers, but this dynamic production will excite the more cerebral, classically-inspired audience member by offering a fabled, medieval feminist to admire.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 1-October 15 by City Lit, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-293-3682 or by going to www.citylit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.