Two Irish farming families, whose generations have lived predictably side by side for more than a century, are in for a rude awakening in the San Diego REP’s satisfying production of “Outside Mullingar.”
The tale begins with a storm and a funeral. Aoife (Ellen Crawford) has just laid her beloved husband to rest. She and past-her-salad-days daughter, Rosemary (Carla Harting), have been invited over for a neighborly cup of tea by widower Tony (Mike Genovese). This throws painfully shy middle-age son, Anthony (Manny Fernandes) into a panic. Aoife, dressed in her widow weeds, enters the cottage but Rosemary stays out in the rain nursing a pipe and a long-held grudge against Anthony. It is altogether possible that the source of the haze surrounding her head is part tobacco and part smoke coming out of her ears.
Inside the cottage, there is frank and funny discussion of death. “When the husband goes, the wife follows,” Anthony tells Aoife. “You’ll be dead in a year.”
No offense taken because in these parts there is an acknowledged, natural order of things for those with lives tied to the land. That order dictates the lands goes from father to son, so it is truly shocking when Tony announces he is going to bypass Anthony in his will and leave the family farm to an American nephew he has never met. The reason: Should his son inherit, the farm is as good as lost because Anthony has no wife or children.
But wait. There are secrets related to a thin strip of land sold by Tony years ago for no apparent reason and is now tightly held by Rosemary for no apparent gain. Meanwhile, Anthony is acting more peculiar than usually by surreptitiously tramping around both properties wielding a metal detector like a weed whacker amidst the cow patties. And, why, for pity sake, do people who can’t read minds make life-altering decisions by interpreting (incorrectly) divine messages and perceived “signs” everywhere they turn?
The answers are contained in uproarious storytelling by playwright John Patrick Shanley, on par with his Oscar-winning screenwriting of “Moonstruck.”
Under the rock-solid direction of The REP’s associate artistic director Todd Salovey, the cast interacts, reactions and delivers with the pathos and split-second comedic timing demanded by the script. Ellen Crawford’s Aoife is as flinty as the Irish soil yet convincingly conveys a mother’s ache for her unfulfilled daughter. Carla Harting’s chip-on-her-shoulder performance as Rosemary also manages heartbreaking glimpses at a scared vulnerable woman. Mike Genovese (as Tony) gives us a prideful bull of a man who we come to understand only after he decides to become honest with Anthony and himself. Manny Fernandes (as Anthony) turned in a complex portrayal that is at times perplexing then maddening and ultimately endearing. The Irish accents, courtesy of dialect coach Grace Delaney, are as convincing as they are lyric.
The story alternatives between two cozy cottages in which scenic designer Giulio Perrone has incorporated birch trees as a suggestions of forests on the periphery and as askew furniture legs giving the sense that nature is rising through the cottage floor to lay claim to its inhabitants. Costume designer Anastasia Pautova manages to outfit the cast for the dreary Irish weather with just enough individual touches to keeps them from all looking the same in their sweaters, tweed and Wellington boots. Rosemary’s attire in particular is as thick as armor and mismatched in a deliberate way that dares anyone to make fun of her.
Toe-tapping traditional music by Jim Mooney (guitar), Alicia Previn (fiddle) and Richard Tibbits (flute) offered both pre- and post-performance. A pint of Guinness would do nicely right about now.