James Pickering and Carrie Hitchcock play neighbors in rural Ireland.
At its simplest, Forward Theater’s Outside Mullingar is a love story. But like the very best love stories, it takes its time and offers a few surprises along the way, proving to be an unforgettable journey.
In the production, which runs through Feb. 12 at Overture’s Playhouse, we meet elderly neighbors Tony Reilly (James Pickering) and Aoife Muldoon (Carrie Hitchcock) on the day of Aoife’s husband’s funeral in rural Ireland. The two families respect each other, but they also harbor a grudge over a disputed plot of land.
Tony and Aoife’s middle-aged children, Anthony Reilly (David Daniel) and Rosemary Muldoon (Clare Arena Haden) are at the center of the drama. They are still single and living on their respective family farms, and their parents fret over them as if they were still schoolchildren. From the get-go, the audience can see that Anthony and Rosemary are frenemies with romantic potential.
Daniel offers a breathtaking performance as Anthony. The actor gets every detail of his character right, down to slight facial movements and a dead-on accent. It’s clear Anthony is uncomfortable around people as he fidgets, hands permanently stuffed into his pockets. He’s scruffy and cute, an Irish Ethan Hawke.
Wild-haired Rosemary is intense and angry. Haden captures the feisty energy of her character well, but I wanted a bit more complexity earlier in the show to better understand where her emotion was coming from. In the final moments of the play Rosemary softens, and we understand who she is.
John Patrick Shanley’s script is finely done and full of poetry, but at times it feels like a caricature of rural Irish life, with sentimental references to drinking, fighting and Irish pride. The play is set in 2008, but Tony wears a fisherman’s sweater and captain’s hat and Aofie looks like she stepped out of Dancing at Lughnasa in her long skirt and shawl.
Coming from Shanley, an award-winning American playwright, this idealization of Ireland makes sense. Shanley, now 66, first visited his father’s Irish homestead at age 42. He fell in love with it, calling it his “Atlantis.” The landscape here is not one of reality, but one of memory and dream.
Chris Dunham’s set is lovely: a rocky crag and a floor made of a hodgepodge of planks and linoleum surrounded by a wide moat of spongy moss. There aren’t any props. Characters refer to invisible items, but don’t pantomime actions. At first it feels strange when a character talks about drinking tea with his hands at his side, but it ultimately proves to be a larger statement by director Tyler Marchant. Pay attention to the people, the words. The things don’t matter much.
“Maybe the quiet around the thing is as important as the thing itself,” Anthony muses toward the end of Outside Mullingar. That line embodies the play. It’s a love story, sure. A family story, a story about life and death. But the story and the characters thrive in liminal spaces: the long spaces between dying and death, the years that pass before two people fall in love.
I don’t think I am spoiling anything by letting you know that Anthony and Rosemary fall in love. There’s a happy ending. And a quirky twist. But just like life, Outside Mullingar isn’t about the ending; it’s about all the things that happen along the way.