Outside Mullingar will make you happier about being alive

Pacific Theatre produced John Patrick Shanley's Outside Mullingar

Rebecca DeBoer plays an assertive woman and John Emmet Tracy a tender man in Outside Mullingar.

After watching playwright John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar, it’s as if you can smell the spring leaves more keenly on your way home from the theatre. You’re more hopeful and awake. And you want to kiss somebody.

In the story, we meet 42-year-old Anthony and his harsh, widowed father, Tony. They’re farmers. They live next door to Aoife Muldoon and her daughter Rose, and they’ve just returned to their kitchen after the funeral of Aoife’s husband, Chris: in this romantic comedy, death’s shadow is never far from the door, reminding the characters—and us—to get on with it.

But Anthony has a terrible time getting on with it. For some reason, he is petrified of pursuing Rose. He is also afraid that he will lose the farm. Tony tells Anthony that he doesn’t love the farm enough: “You don’t stand on the land and draw strength from it like I do.” Even though Anthony has been working this land since he was five years old, Tony plans to sell the place to his American nephew, Adam.

As Eros and the landscape tumble about like pagan lovers, the speech that spills out of the characters is often surprising. Aoife complains about the crowds at the recent Beijing Olympics: “Oh, look at us!” Aoife says, imitating their supposed bragging. “We’re Chinese!”

There’s poetry in the language, too. Reaching for an explanation for his skittishness, Anthony says to Rose, “The problem is there’s just not enough air in the world to suit me. Never has been.”

As it unfolds, the script happily unbuckles gender stereotypes. Rose is as powerful and unstoppable as the tide. When she goes after Tony to get him to bequeath his farm to his son, she begins by saying, “Tony Riley, do yourself a service and do not cross me.” Later, referring to himself, Anthony jokes, “A man with feelings should be put down”. And, the day after seeing it, remembering the last scene in Act 1 still makes me weep. Tony, who is getting frail, asks his son to forgive him for mocking his good heart.

Let me also add that Act 2 contains one of the best plot turns in the history of playwriting. You will not see it coming.

None of this would amount to much, of course, if director Angela Konrad’s production for Pacific Theatre weren’t as strong as it is.

John Emmet Tracy plays Anthony and the guy is, essentially, the boy version of Meryl Streep—by which I mean that he disappears into every role he takes on. Tracy’s characterizations begin with a thoroughly imagined internal life. That’s what makes his responses so subtle, authentic and, in this sometimes-surreal script, so funny. Tracy’s Anthony is wary and contained, always hovering around his painful sensitivity. But the actor also lets Anthony’s vivacity burst forth in eccentric gestures and sudden bodily contractions.

Aoife has an edge on her like a kitchen knife, and Erla Faye Forsyth finds that edge while managing to keep her portrait restrained.

In the early going, I wanted Ron Reed to dare a meaner attack as Tony and I felt that Rebecca DeBoer didn’t endow Rose with enough force to sustain an Act 1 scene that she drives. That said, in Act 2, de Boer allows Rose’s sexuality, loneliness, and intelligence their full, glorious play.

On the largely naturalistic set by Carolyn Rapanos, the most arresting element is a corrugated tin sheet, which, in its mundane life, appears to be the wall of an outbuilding, but, in its more poetic manifestation, becomes an impressionistic window that opens onto the natural world. Thanks to Lauchlin Johnston’s lighting design, we see stars on that surface, rain, and sometimes—gloriously—sunshine.

Nature herself is a significant presence in this play. Maybe that’s partly why I felt so refreshed after seeing Outside Mullingar. It’s not often that a play makes you happier to be in your body, but this one does.

OUTSIDE MULLINGAR By John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Angela Konrad. A Pacific Theatre production at Pacific Theatre on Saturday, May 20. Continues until June 10.

For tickets, call 604-731-5518 or visit http://pacifictheatre.org

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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