KPBS AIRDATE: July 20, 1994 >
There’s an Irish Mist wafting through Balboa Park, and it’s coming from the Old Globe. The theatre company is staging two contemporary Irish dramas, and both will transport you to far-off places.
Outdoors, on the Festival Stage, they’ve mounted “Wonderful Tennessee,” the latest creation of Brian Friel, Ireland’s pre-eminent living playwright. This production was to have been “Dancing at Lughnasa,” the marvelously still but moving Friel play that has garnered every major theater prize on both sides of the Atlantic. But when South Coast Repertory Theatre put “Lughnasa” in its season, and “Tennessee” came to Broadway, director Craig Noel changed scripts and jumped on a newer bandwagon. From this critic’s viewpoint, he should have stayed where he was.
Both of Friel’s plays take up Big Issues in small environments. Both shine the spotlight on unrealized dreams. Both are language-rich and steeped in the spiritual, providing a potent commentary on communication, things spoken and unspoken. Both are very quiet plays, with minimal action. “Lughnasa” touched me deeply, but while I watched it, “Tennessee” left me emotionally uninvolved. The same apparently happened in New York, where the new play was the first dramatic flop of this Broadway season.
It’s not about the Old Globe production. Noel’s direction is painstaking, and the ensemble is magnificent, each of the six skillful actors painting a vivid but piteous character: three middle-aged couples who cannot communicate, perched on a pier in northwest Ireland, waiting for a boatman who never comes (Mr. Godot… are you out there?), to take them to a mysterious, mystical island they’ll never see. For brief moments, we are touched by the palpable yearning, the eerie spirituality, the primitive rituals. But for the rest of the time, like the characters, we’re just sort of…. waiting.
Waiting is also the name of the game in “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” a taut 1992 drama which fits very snugly into the Cassius Carter. It brings us uncomfortably close to the action, a cramped cell in Lebanon where a restrained American doctor, an antic Irish journalist and an effete English linguist are being held hostage. As they metaphorically twist in the wind, they symbolically yank at their chains and bang them rhythmically against the cold stone floor. We get sucked in by their kinetic energy, as they desperately re-enact horse races and movies, read from the Bible and Koran, lean heavily on memory and fantasy, just to keep themselves sane. It’s a powerful and disturbing play, which you can hardly watch without asking yourself, “What would I do?” “How would I react?”
Playwright Frank McGuinness focuses on the intensity of the interactions, but director Sheldon Epps has highlighted the humor, much more so than other productions. But it pretty well works here, with Cotter Smith a funny, talky, in-your-face Irishman, Globe favorite Richard Easton showing a delightful other side with a broad array of prissy English mannerisms, and Terry Alexander providing a seething but externally calm fulcrum to the piece.
The men may be less dirty and scruffy than we’d expect, and perhaps more cheerful, more glib. But their words, their feelings and their terror seem to come from the deep pit of the collective gut. There is no clear political stance in the play, but it is a political tragedy of our times. At the end, after months of verbally reaching out to each other through the darkness, these men cannot find words to say. In an anguished final moment of farewell, the best they can do is re-enact an ancient Spartan ritual. They comb each other’s hair. It’s an image I can’t seem to shake.
Actually, both these plays have stayed with me, though “Tennessee” sneaked up and began to nag at me long after I’d left the theater. In their lyrical language and their heart-pounding silences, both plays speak volumes about the human spirit.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.