Set on Midsummer’s Eve (June 23), Micheál mac Liammóir’s The Mountains Look Different is about a woman’s attempt to reinvent herself through marriage following years of working as a prostitute in London. First performed at the Gate Theater in Dublin, the noted Irish actor’s play was applauded for its openness by critics and audiences in 1948, but it was also disdained by the God-fearing and narrow-minded Catholic community. However bold it was then, by today’s standards director Aidan Redmond’s revival offers audiences little more than a diorama, a 3-D representation of a bygone era.
The play begins as Bairbre (pronounced Barbra and performed with grace, a subtle sincerity, and a sinister sting by Brenda Meaney) and her new husband, Tom Grealish (Jesse Pennington), return to his family farm in the west of Ireland only three days after their wedding. The naive Tom knows and suspects nothing of Bairbre’s former career, and he is completely besotted with his beautiful bride. Bairbre’s anxiety about how Tom’s father, farmer Martin Grealish (Con Horgan) will receive her provides a hint of how difficult it will be for her to cast off the shadows of her past.
Her uncle, mill owner Matthew Conroy (Paul O’Brien), pays a visit to Grealish before the newlyweds arrive and paints his niece to be the picture of innocence and loveliness, insisting that London hasn’t changed her at all. As Conroy reads aloud a letter he has received from Bairbre, which serves the powerful dramatic function of stoking the furnace full of loaded implications about her back story, he appears to be genuinely proud of her accomplishments, believing that she’s worked as a hotel manager and earned a clean living. Regardless, nothing Conroy says will persuade the hard-nosed Grealish, who cannot imagine his simple son has found himself a bride, that their return is something to be joyful about.
Stylishly dressed, Bairbre is a cut above the plain country folk she is now surrounded by, though she is self-conscious and extremely concerned about making a good impression. Rightly so, her fashion sense and poise cause farmhand Bartley (Daniel Marconi) to overreact. He naively asks Bairbre too many questions way too soon about life in London, which in turn sparks a surprisingly aggressive reaction from her, exposing a good amount of her truth very early on in the play: “You be careful of that slit in your mug or may be you’d get another, see?”
Later on, after dinner, when she has gone to change her clothes, Bartley announces what he thinks of her:
That one have a tongue would blister you. T’was to ask her I did did she know many people beyond in London and she gives a screech and a lep like a devil out of hell and says she, “I’ll cut your throat,” says she, “if you axe me the likes of that,” says she. “By this and by that,” says she, “I’ll slit your ugly gobbet,” says she. “I’ll plaster you,” says she…
Midsummer’s Eve is a perfect opportunity for an all-nighter, a convenient excuse for a raging bonfire, and for all the town’s folk to make an appearance. The irony of setting the play on Midsummer Eve is that the holiday is meant to ward off bad luck; however, on this occasion, it courts it, as the mountains Bairbre had hoped would provide a safe haven and a place to start anew close in on her. When it becomes clear that she cannot run away from the truth, she boldly faces it head on, with tragic consequences.
Redmond’s revival is seasoned with song and dance, and Irish-inflected original music by M. Staab. Tin pipes and jigs, and a smattering of Gaelic add to the flavor of the piece. But neither the costumes (Andrea Varga), which are either too clean or too dirty; the synthetic stone walls of the sets (Vicki R. Davis); or the reproduction period furniture and stoneware (props by Chris Fields) are convincing enough. Their lack of authenticity is a distraction; the action is stifled by it and, overall, they reduce the quality of the production.
In this period play, the odds are stacked against a smart, straight-talking, and brave woman who is desperate to make a fresh start in life. While Redmond’s production generates heat and performances are fiery, the play’s dated and protracted naturalistic style makes the controversy it stoked then no longer feel relevant today.
The Mint Theater Company’s production of The Mountains Look Different plays at Theater Row (410 West 42nd St.) through July 14. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or visit minttheater.org.