Dorset Theatre Festival brings Ireland to Vermont

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DORSET >> The vibe was undeniable at Dorset Theatre Festival. As I took in the regional premiere of John Patrick Shanley's latest play, "Outside Mullingar," I scanned the audience.

Couples were moving closer to each other. Hands were held. Whispers exchanged.

After the rousing, standing ovation, the same scene flooded the parking lot: couples holding hands and leaning in to each other as the buzz overflowed into the starlit Vermont sky. Was that a smooch I saw in the car across the way from me?

These are the types of primeval influences which "Mullingar" left on a primed crowd.

The show, directed by John Gould Rubin, makes people want to be with each other, to revel in life, love, and the sheer beauty of human relations when the spirits trials its way to triumph.

The story takes place in Killucan, Ireland over the course of five years, from 2008 to 2013. There, Anthony Reilly (Michael Hayden) toils on the family farm under the aegis of his ill father, Tony (Jonathan Hogan). Next door, Rosemary Muldoon (Mary Bacon) is in a somewhat parallel life with her mother Aoife (Jennifer Harmon).

There is tension in the air. Family tension. Inheritance tension. And naturally, romantic tension. But behind every conversation between Rosemary and Anthony, there is hidden history; just past every further development, a roadblock.

And this wouldn't be Ireland if Shanley didn't offer up a dash of humor – dark or otherwise.

The actors lived up to the powerful writing, bringing alive an Ireland that was surreal, yet at the same time, utterly convincing.

Hogan and Harmon almost by definition must be considered in tandem. Their characters' advanced ages and uncertain futures at the start of the play made them important messengers to their younger, confused progeny.

And their superior quality of paternal and maternal expressiveness allowed us to appreciate what fine actors they are.

A side note: in the play's latter stages, Harmon slipped into the back of the theatre and sat across the aisle from me, taking in the show not as a participant, but as a fan. She laughed. She clapped. She wiped tears from her eyes. She was genuinely invested.

Through it all she projected Shanley's Irish moxie.

These are the types of gems only a small rural venue like Dorset can deliver – you'd be challenged to see something so earthy and intimate under the big city's bright lights.

Hayden, a versatile veteran actor of all media delivered an Anthony we not only could love, but also feel sorry for - in the way a parent feels for a child.

He projected insecurity and internal strife so acutely that he leaves us nowhere to go than to scoop him up off the stage, wanting to make the world right for Anthony. Still, Hayden took those same emotions and from their ramparts fired off the funniest lines of the evening, and all on target. That's real talent.

Not lost in this brilliance was Bacon's peerless rendering of Rosemary. If ever there were a fiery Irish lass, Bacon had us entranced by her forceful, powerful presence in a near-dizzying array of struts, outbursts, and facial contortions.

Her desperation was palpable. Her fury genuine. Her sense of purpose singular. Bacon's calls to the ghosts of Eire were ironically believable – and should have made anyone with an Irish surname both wince and applaud. Yet she too, in the midst of the maelstrom, could deliver the laughs. Amazing.

The show ran about 100 minutes, with no intermission.

Lights by Michael Giannitti excelled in their effects. Ryan Rumery's sound accentuated a number of key moments, and Barbara A. Bell's costumes helped to bring home the Irish farm. Stage manager Joanna Obuzor had the show's logistics tight as a drum.

The long-awaited set design and video projection backdrops by Narelle Sissons and Kevin Ramser were an unqualified success at creating not just rural Ireland, but the dream that rural Ireland could very well be, well, in Vermont.

It was Dorset's first time using this technology. It won't be the last.

To say that Shanley is a contemporary master is an understatement. The repartee in this play - the exchanges between Anthony and Rosemary - harken back to classically clever, machine-gun bursts of wit one might have heard in mid-20th century silver screen classics – except with far less urban gentility and refinement, which is exactly what was needed in hardscrabble rural Ireland.

But it's the players who bring it all together, proving yet again that superior acting can take a sublime script to the place it does in "Mullingar," with audience members seeking out their mates, drawn together in the intimacy of the moment, a testament that indeed, Dorset Theatre Festival succeeded in bringing a slice of Ireland's heart to the Green Mountains.

"Outside Mullingar" runs through Aug. 15 at Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Rd., in Dorset. For tickets and information call 802-867-2223 or visit www.dorsettheartrefestival.org

Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA). E-mail: tchalkias@aol.com Twitter:@TellyHalkias


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