The three principal characters of Jaki McCarrick’s drama The Naturalists are refugees from a society that, in their view, damages the earth and is toxic to the human heart. The time is 2010; the place, the Republic of Ireland’s Border Region. Brothers Francis and Billy Sloane (John Keating and Tim Ruddy) have settled into middle age as small-time farmers, accustomed to being alone with each other and the glorious landscape around them.
The Sloanes’ farm includes an old house, currently uninhabitable, and a derelict commercial building in which their grandfather and father used to sell hardware and liquor. “A good shop one time,” Francis recalls. “Once we were the only reason to stop at Swan’s Cross at all.” Nowadays outsiders seldom visit and that’s the way the brothers like it.
Camped out in a mobile home, Francis and Billy talk incessantly of moving into the old house. But their do-it-yourself renovations are proceeding at a snail’s pace. That’s partly because of the farm’s backbreaking demands; but it’s also due to demons preying on the brothers’ minds.
After years in prison for masterminding the IRA’s 1979 ambush of British soldiers at Narrow Water Castle (the bloodiest of all IRA actions during the so-called Troubles), Francis is plagued by post-traumatic stress. As Billy understates the case, Francis has taken “a while to come back to himself.”
Having dropped out of veterinary school to care for his fragile brother, Billy is bitter about the professional prospects he sacrificed. Both men are haunted by their mother’s abandonment almost 20 years ago and, especially, her motive for slipping away without warning or explanation.
To get their house in order, the Sloanes hire a young woman, Josie Larmer (Sarah Street). With Josie as housekeeper, they expect to accelerate the renovations and escape the rut in which their lives are stalled.
Josie is an unlikely candidate for the position. She’s university educated, well-traveled, and a serious student of modern dance. Yet she needs the income, relishes hard work, and loathes the strictures of office jobs. She, like the brothers, is recovering from psychic injury, and wants a safe haven.
Act I of McCarrick’s play consists of arresting, occasionally cryptic, conversation that combines astute characterization and languorous exposition. The playwright’s accomplished dialogue affords glimpses of the three principals’ unconscious motivations and their degrees of emotional damage.
In Act II, McCarrick introduces John-Joe Doherty (Michael Mellamphy), Francis’s co-conspirator in the Narrow Water attack. Burly and taciturn, John-Joe has a secret that gives him power over the brothers. His arrival raises the play’s dramatic temperature but dilutes the tender naturalism of the previous scenes with melodrama.
Mellamphy brings enormous restraint to McCarrick’s villain, contributing a verisimilitude the character wouldn’t have if played by a less accomplished actor. But, like the film-noir thugs in Lillian Hellman’s Days to Come (currently in revival at the Mint), John-Joe is a utilitarian narrative device rather than a developed character. In his sinister presence (and amid the stagy turns of the Act II plot), Josie and the Sloanes manifest new aspects of their personalities that, to the playwright’s credit, always ring true.
The Naturalists is directed by Colleen Clinton and Lily Dorment and produced by the Pond Theatre Company (which Clinton and Dorment founded in 2016). This fledgling troupe, committed to introducing new or unfamiliar works by British and Irish writers on this side of the Atlantic, is giving McCarrick’s drama a superb world premiere. The cast—a near-perfect ensemble in the first act, intriguingly disrupted by Mellamphy’s appearance in the second—works together like the strings and bow of a virtuoso’s violin, creating just the right emotional colors for each movement of the piece.
Chika Shimizu’s scenic design puts the claustrophobic mobile home on the tiny stage and, in front an expanse of garden. Caitlin Smith Rapoport’s picturesque lighting distinguishes seasons, times of day, and interior scenes from those outdoors. An intricate sound design by Christoper Ross-Ewart forcefully brings what’s aural in nature into the confines of the little playhouse.
McCarrick is a lyrical new voice from a country with a rich tradition of poetic drama. The two directors and four fine actors make the most of an admirable, if uneven, script. Josie and the Sloane men are complex, believable characters who share a prelapsarian vision of a world in which everything’s “slotted into place in a way no human being could ever invent or design.” John-Joe is a forcible symbol of all that menaces human sensitivity and despoils the innocent earth. What occurs when they encounter one another is engrossing theater.
The Pond Theatre Company production of The Naturalists runs through Sept. 23 at Walkerspace (46 Walker St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sundays and 2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 22). For information and tickets, visit thepondtheatre.org.