Brian Mackey and Rachael VanWormer in "Outside Mullingar." Photo by Ken Jacques
Brian Mackey at his best distinguishes Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar,” an atypically non-grim Irish story that in the end becomes a quirky romantic fairytale.
With an almost endearing nervous energy of the kind that accompanies (we will find out) a secreted neurosis, Mackey portrays Anthony Reilly, the 40ish son of an ailing farmer, both of them residing outside Mullingar in County Westmeath, Ireland. In Shanley’s tale inspired by his very first trip to Eire more than 30 years ago, Anthony’s anxiety gets immediately ramped up when his father, played on the night I saw “Outside Mullingar” by Robert Smyth’s understudy, the very capable Eddie Yaroch, reveals that he does not intend to leave the farm after his death to his son. “You don’t love farming!” is the accusation, though as events unfold it’s learned that this is a smokescreen.
At Lamb’s the 10-year-old “Outside Mullingar” is being collaboratively directed by Smyth, Kerry Meads and Deborah Gilmour Smyth, who also appears as Aoife Muldoon, a neighboring farm owner and at the outset of the play just widowed. Completing the cast is Mackey’s spouse, Rachael VanWormer, as Rosemary Muldoon, Aoife’s headstrong daughter who’s been waiting for decades for Anthony to woo her. (This in spite of the fact that she still resents his knocking her down when she was a child.)
So you’ve got two pairs of spouses in this production: Smyth and Gilmour Smyth, and Mackey and VanWormer. As noted above, Yaroch was understudying Saturday night so I wasn’t able to observe the Smyth/Gilmour Smyth dynamic, though I hardly needed to. They’ve performed together more than 30 times. Mackey and VanWormer are a fine onstage match, particularly in the play’s latter half when the story shifts from the disconnect between Anthony and his father to the descendants left behind after the elders’ passing.
Leading up to its startling reveal, “Outside Mullingar” drops hints and clues and gems about where its deceptively linear story is going, most of these not understood until after that reveal itself. Shanley could be accused of trying to be too cute with this play, and many, as I was the first time I saw it years ago, will be slightly if temporarily aghast at the turn “Mullingar” takes.
But by the time the show is winding down, hankies may be necessary.
Among his strengths in this production is Mackey’s mastery of and commitment to the Irish accent he employs – it never wavers. In a small part, Gilmour Smyth does the same. As the fiery and understandably frustrated Rosemary, VanWormer’s Irish occasionally gets lost in her consternation, but she enjoys multiple moving moments in the part.
Yaroch’s a bit one-note, his grudges grumbled, his stubbornness stolid, though his last scene with Mackey feels genuine and is touching.
There are quite a few laughs in “Outside Mullingar,” some no doubt incited by sheer astonishment, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy. Nothing as profoundly Irish as a play set near a village called Killucan can escape a certain broodiness.
Still, Shanley wrote the screenplay for “Moonstruck,” so he knows how to write humor. And romance. And family. He can be forgiven for teasing us possibly too much in “Outside Mullingar” – or maybe he should be applauded for doing so.
“Outside Mullingar” runs through Feb. 18 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.