Watching the Pearl Theatre’s splendid production of The Playboy of the Western World, one can sense why J.M. Synge’s masterpiece is so seldom produced. The many good roles require several strong actors working at a high level. The balance of tragedy and comedy is tricky: Synge resisted most attempts to soften his lines. And the language must be delivered uniformly and lucidly in an Irish brogue, so even the unfamiliar words—“She’s above on the cnuceen, seeking the nanny goats”—help make the dialogue sing. And sing it must. As the playwright says in his preface: “In a good play every speech should be as fully flavored as a nut or apple, and such speeches cannot be written by anyone who works among people who have shut their lips on poetry.” Happily, the actors at the Pearl seem to have marshaled not only their best diction skills but inspiration from their relocation to City Center Stage II to pull off Synge’s high-wire act. The production is an auspicious debut in their new home.
The story is simple. A young man, Christy Mahon (Sean McNall) arrives in an old shebeen (tavern) in the lonesome west of Ireland, and after prodding by the curious natives, he confesses to killing his father with a loy (a kind of spade). The inhabitants, enraptured with the notion of anyone bold enough to slay his father, hail him as a hero. He strikes the fancy of Pegeen Mike (Lee Stark), whose own father, Michael (a wary, blustery Bradford Cover), owns the shebeen. They give him shelter and a job as the pot-boy, much to the consternation of Pegeen Mike’s betrothed, Shawn Keough (Ryan G. Metzger). And Pegeen soon finds a rival in the neighboring Widow Quin (Rachel Botchan), whose husband died from a stabbing she inflicted, and who is now looking for a new mate.
Meanwhile, Christy, constantly embellishing his story to enhance his bravado, becomes the toast of the village and finds himself not only acclaimed, but an actual hero, winning all sorts of country games, like donkey races. Then his father arrives, not dead at all, and suddenly the townspeople turn against him for not being a murderer.
The echoes of Synge’s inspirations are as disparate as Sophocles and Shakespeare. The killing of the father is half the Oedipal story, of course, and when the cowardly Shawn Keough is hustled out the door to battle Christy, there’s an echo of Twelfth Night, when Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Viola are hustled into combat.
J.R. Sullivan’s precise direction maintains the delicate balance of comedy and perversity in the story. He has also allowed some quiet emendations to the text to help his audience: Pegeen’s declaration that “there’s a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed” has become “gallant story.” No one is likely to riot, as the 1907 audiences did, over the sexual overtones to the word “shift,” yet Sullivan pinpoints the rigid prudery of the period by including a fleeting, smart moment as Christy, all alone, touches his shoes to those of Pegeen Mike as if he were a naughty adolescent.
However, the designers have pulled back from the darkness Synge envisioned. Harry Feiner’s rustic set of benches and bar, adorned with brown earthenware jugs, tends more toward a country coziness than drab desperation. Stephen Petrilli has not lighted it realistically (for a room with only a small window and a tiny hearth, and perhaps a fourth-wall window to let in light), but with warmth and clarity. M.L. Dogg employs an uillean pipe to evoke the sound of rural Ireland, so there's an undeniable charm to the whole that belies the hopelessness and misery that spur the local imaginations to mythologize Christy's deed.
Nonetheless, the performances are of a high order. Sean McNall is perhaps a bit too smiling and easygoing in the first act for the wary, embittered young man unexpectedly embraced by everyone, but he grows into a fine Christy. Lee Stark is a lively and lovely Pegeen, charming and callow and flirtatious. In an expertly judged comic performance, the lanky Metzger blends bewilderment, cowardice, piety, and lovesickness in just the right amounts for Shawn. Rachel Botchan as the Widow Quin avoids the trap of coming off as merely a troublesome busybody; she’s a 1907 cougar, to be sure, but one feels her loneliness and her underlying need for self-preservation.
Joe Kady is a formidable, growling old bear as Christy’s da. Even the trio of giggling teenage girls—Ellen Adair, Stephanie Bratnick, and Julie Ferrell—pull off the trick of being individuals as well as a Greek chorus with spontaneity, high-octane energy, and aplomb.
Considering how rare any production of The Playboy is, this is a welcome opportunity to revisit Synge’s glorious poetic achievement. Who knows when it will come around again—or be as well done?