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Theater Review: Characters Infuse Shaker Bridge Production With Charm

  • Michael Stewart Allen and Amy Hutchins appear in a scene from Shaker Bridge Theatre's production of "Outside Mullingar" during a rehearsal at Whitney Hall in Enfield. (Courtesy photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Anthony Reilly is an odd man with a very odd secret. But oddly enough, he wins hearts in John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar, playing now through Oct. 28 at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield.

All tamped down emotions and carefully engineered evasions, Anthony, played by Michael Stewart Allen, represents a sort of exasperating everyman whose truer nature reveals itself, bit by bit, in amusing idiosyncrasies that build to a curious confession. That the confession makes a certain kind of sense and calls up something akin to nostalgia in its sweet strangeness is the beauty and genius of this little romantic comedy, which goes like a whisk broom into the corners of the ordinary and holds up the oddities it finds there like forgotten treasures.

Set in a farming community in modern-day Ireland, Outside Mullingar tells the story of an aging father and his son deciding the fate of the land beneath their feet, a decision complicated by the interests of the mother and daughter who live on the neighboring farm.

Tony Reilly, played by the versatile James Handy, whose credits span regional and off-Broadway roles as well as TV and film work ranging from Arachnophobia to NYPD Blue, doesn’t want to leave the farm to his son because he doesn’t believe Anthony nurtures a large enough love for the land. Anthony’s stammering resistance is no match for his father’s stubborn resolve. There is, however, a small legal matter to dispense with. Decades before, Tony sold a tiny parcel of his road front to his neighbor, Christopher Muldoon, resulting in a bothersome, double-gated entrance.

In the opening scenes of the play, we learn the reason for the transaction, when the newly widowed Aoife Muldoon, played by Broadway veteran Dorothy Stanley, pays a visit to Tony and Anthony. It turns out that the mild-mannered Anthony pushed Aoife’s daughter, Rosemary, onto the ground when she was 6 years old (though he has no recollection of it) and that nothing would appease Rosemary short of laying claim to the very land where the incident occurred.

“She was all in a rage and nothing would soothe her but to know Anthony would never set foot there again,” Aoife explains to the bewildered Tony.

Make sense, it doesn’t (to use the delicious inverted syntax of the Irish). And yet, even as we scratch our heads, we nod them. Of course, a 6-year-old persuaded her father to buy her a parcel of land on which to cultivate a grudge. Of course, a man sold the roadside access to his farm, no questions asked, for reasons of his own that he never shared.

Shanley, the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning author of Doubt, has a gift for packaging universal truths inside quirks and absurdities such as these. When the grieving Rosemary says of her father, “He loved hatin’ the crows. He was perfect,” it’s clear just what kind of man he was. And when Anthony admits “People don’t appeal to me that much,” and Rosemary answers with “Well, that’s normal. Who likes people? Nobody,” it rings true.

To be sure, both Rosemary and Anthony are more angst-ridden than average. Anthony doesn’t even try to pretend he’s happy with his lot in life, and Rosemary admits to contemplating suicide. Still, in spite of themselves, they charm.

Allen, whose prior work includes 12 seasons with the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey as well as numerous regional and off-Broadway credits, wholly inhabits Anthony, boyish and bewildered-looking from his balding head to his Wellies, his voice cracking in just the right places when unwelcome emotions come bubbling up, his skin going red and splotchy every time a conversation takes an uncomfortable turn (which, for Anthony, is often). Amy Hutchins, who has performed at several NYC and regional theaters, gives a fierce performance as Rosemary, feisty but never shrill, vulnerable around the edges but solid and grounded where Anthony is flimsy and flighty. Upper Valley audiences might remember Hutchins and Allen, a married couple, from last season’s production of Constellations.

Handy thoroughly satisfies as Tony in both ruddy-cheeked appearance and crusty demeanor, and Stanley absolutely triumphs as Aoife from the moment she makes her entrance balanced on kitten heels and a cane. Making pronouncements that span octaves and take her to the limits of her rusting lungs before inhaling grandly, she feasts on the linguistic offerings of her words — the moist p’s and b’s, the yeasty o’s, the meaty r’s — as much as on the drama of her everyday life. It’s a shame we don’t see more of her.

The play, directed by Bill Coons, is perhaps at both its strongest and weakest when Rosemary confronts Tony over his refusal to give Anthony the farm. The clash of genders and generations is palpable in their exchange, and they both bring just the right amount of heat to the argument. Handy comes off as frustrated and gruff but not so much as to jeopardize his rapport with the audience. There is an endearing gentleness about him even at his most perturbed. Hutchins, for her part, glows when provoked. Their credibility falters just a bit when they’re up close to one another.

For the most part, though, intimacy is one of the play’s strengths. The close-up view afforded by Shaker Bridge’s theater-in-the-round experience is well-suited to the tidy confines of the play and the probing nature of its central questions. (The set, however, is decidedly untidy in a believable way: An old TV dominates the Reillys’ kitchen counter, and a forgotten pizza box sits beneath an end table.)

The play also offers an almost O.Henry-esque twist befitting its tortured protagonists and illuminating humankind’s universal quest for meaning. Whether Shanley is honoring this quest or gently mocking it is hard to say. No matter. The best way to experience Outside Mullingar is inside the glow of these two little farmhouses with their oddball inhabitants, letting the weirdness warm you.

Shaker Bridge Theatre’s production ofOutside Mullingarruns through Oct. 28 at Whitney Hall in Enfield. Tickets are $28-$35 ($16 for students). Call 603-448-3750, email shakerbridge@gmail.com or visit shakerbridgetheatre.org.

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Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.