John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar, is a lovable play about love. Philadelphia Theatre Co.’s production is lovable, too—full of quirky charm and tasty dialogue and, well, lovable characters. The cast is superb; they create rich accents and meticulously craft personalities.
Shanley, best known for his New York voice in both the tough-minded play, Doubt, and his romantic screenplay, Moonstruck, here returns to his Irish, pre-Bronx roots. Outside Mullingar is set on two farms in rural Ireland, and although we’re told the events begin in December, 2008 and continue to 2013, it feels long ago and far away.
The four inhabitants of those farms—separated by a strip of land that has been an irritant to them all for thirty years—are seventy-five year old Tony Reilly (David Howey), a widower living with his son forty-two year old bachelor son Anthony (Anthony Lawton); next door are newly widowed Aoief Muldoon (Beth Dixon) and her thirty-six year old unmarried daughter Rosemary ( Kathleen McNenny).
The set-up is obvious to everyone but the characters, and we wait for Rosemary and Tony to finally get together once their parents are dead. These are people who look death squarely in the eye, although they grieve deeply and long. The deathbed reconciliation scene between Tony and his cantankerous father is very moving, without a whiff of cloying sentimentality.
The explicit plot issue is the struggle over the legacy of the land, but the implicit plot is the struggle with oddness: a man who feels trapped when he’s indoors, who wanders the fields at night and wonders, “Pushed out? When was I in?” and a woman who is perishing of loneliness: “My eyes could set fire to Gomorrah! My emotions are unspeakable, Anthony, unspeakable.” Watching them resist each other makes for a highly enjoyable evening.
Under Mary B. Robinson’s direction, the characters seem softer and sweeter than they did when I saw the New York premiere, where they were not quite so lovable, but fiercer and rougher than they are in PTC’s production. Jason Simms’ set design resists slavish realism, and instead creates atmosphere with stone walls and homely kitchens that descent to the stage from above; the lighting, designed by Dennis Parichy, gives us the rareness of the day when the sun shone in Ireland.
Philadelphia Theatre Co. , Broad & Lombard Sts. Through Dec.28. Tickets $25-59. Information: 215-985-0420 or PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org