John Patrick Shanley's Outside Mullingar is a lovable play about love. The Philadelphia Theatre Company 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 the romantic screenplay for Moonstruck, here returns to his Irish 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 30 years - are 75-year-old Tony Reilly (David Howey), a widower living with his 42-year-old bachelor son Anthony (Anthony Lawton); next door are newly widowed Aoife Muldoon (Beth Dixon) and her 36-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 the Philadelphia Theatre Company's production.
Jason Simms' set design resists slavish realism, and instead creates atmosphere with stone walls and homely kitchens that appear from above; the lighting, designed by Dennis Parichy, gives us the rareness of the day when the sun shone in Ireland.