There are four characters. They’re Irish, and when they speak, everything is confrontational. One is accusatory, the other, defensive. Then they reverse roles; the one on the defense is now the accuser, and so on. And they shout. It’s how they communicate. Trying to make a point or getting to the heart of what they mean to say can take forever, even a lifetime. Throughout their lives there’s been no other way.
In John Patrick Shanley’s romantic comedy/drama, Outside Mullingar, there are two middle-aged farmers, Anthony Reilly (Larry Bull) and Rosemary Muldoon (Cassandra Bissell). Their lands sit side by side. The Reilly’s and the Muldoon’s have known each other all their lives, but being true to their roots, traditions, and personal values, they haven’t always got along. In reality, they probably have, but you can’t tell from they way they speak.
When the play opens, the rain is streaming, enshrouding the overall tone with a sense of gloom, reflecting not only an atmospheric awareness of how the characters feel, but a literal sense as to how the weather often occurs in Ireland’s country midlands. Mullingar is a real town, nestled in County Westmeath. As the title suggests, the Reilly’s and Muldoon’s live in the country, just outside of town. It rains a lot there.
Old man Tony Reilly (John Hutton) and his forty-something son, Anthony, have just returned from their neighbor’s funeral. Old man Muldoon from next door has passed away, leaving his farm land in the hands of his widow, the elderly Aoife (Robynn Rodriguez) and his daughter, Rosemary. It’ll be a while until we meet Rosemary, but she, like everything else in the lives of these characters, will be discussed at some length in scene one. “You’ll be dead within a year,” the bearded Tony will declare to the widow, then adds, “Me? I’ll be dead within two months.”
The first issue at hand is one of inheritance. Tony, who smokes too much, doesn’t believe his son is of the land. In fact, he thinks there may be something ‘cracked’ about the boy, convinced he’s not so much a Reilly, but a Kelly, a descendant of the ‘cracked’ grandfather on his departed wife’s side, the one who put his dog on trial for slander, seventy years ago. The old man will leave his son some money, but the land itself is another matter. He intends to sell it to his cousin in America, who’ll pass everything on to his American son, recalled from an earlier visit for his diminutive stature. “I remember him,” states the widow, regarding the boy. “He looked like a stump.”
But there’s something of which Tony is unaware. The land next door doesn’t belong to the widow Aoife, but to her fiery daughter, Rosemary, and here’s the catch. A while back, when Tony needed the money, he sold a small patch of land to the Muldoons, the part that gives access to his own farm. Discovering that it’s Rosemary who now owns that patch changes everything. She has no intention of selling a thing, and that makes a sale of the Reilly land difficult.
The second issue is Anthony’s future. Clinging to events of the past, events that for anyone else from a different culture would be of no significance, have isolated Anthony. As discussed in that opening scene, there are all kinds of secrets that to date have remained hidden. Old man Tony talks of taking a certain oath he once swore on the bible, but whatever that oath happened to be is never to be discussed. The younger Anthony once told a secret about himself to a local lass when he was just a teenager, but whatever that secret was resulted with the girl running for cover; to this day, Anthony has never spoke of what he whispered. Plus, there’s conflict between Anthony and Rosemary. When Anthony was just 13, he pushed the neighboring 6 year-old girl to the ground. She’s never forgotten it. The grudge persists. “I don’t hate ya,” Rosemary tells Anthony. “I just don’t like ya.”
Knowing the construct of Shanley’s writing, the final scene will reveal all secrets. Before we get there, there’ll be more rain, the occasional clap of thunder, more emotionally charged exchanges, and a death scene, touching in the way that when characters now aware that time has run out, finally express their feelings without delay or conflict.
Interestingly, when Anthony summons the nerve to tell Rosemary what it was he whispered in the ear of that local lass all those years ago – the secret that made the little girl take flight – the actual reveal is ‘cracked’ enough to be, frankly, ludicrous. Audiences will laugh. The whole exchange, like most of this wonderful Arizona Theatre Company production under David Ivers’ direction, told without intermission, is flawlessly performed, but the laugh doesn’t belong to Anthony’s absurd secret, it’s Rosemary’s reaction, the lengthy, silent pause that follows as she tries to make sense of what she just heard, and struggles to come up with the perfect response. The laugh belongs to Rosemary. Like her, we’re wondering what could possibly be said next.
The rain outside may continue. This is, after all, Ireland’s midlands. But it’s all too obvious in a thoroughly engaging, funny, and well written play of unrequited, romantic love revolving around two people who should have always been together from the beginning, those inner clouds will be lifted. The sun in their lives that should have been there will eventually shine.
“Have you ever wondered what I wore when I wore… less? Rosemary asks Anthony. In a country culture when communicating even the simplest of things means leaving Point A, then climbing over hurdle after hurdle, in addition to several augmentative asides, in order to get to Point B is how everything is discussed, it will take Anthony some time to answer. But eventually he will. And when he does, it’s one of the most satisfying conclusions to a play seen in awhile. And it’s enough that when it’s done and the applause is over, you’ll want to run back and see the whole attractive and ultimately charming production all over again.
Outside Mullingar continues at Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix until March 4
Pictures Courtesy of Tim Fuller