Rekindling a Love for Synge

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

John Millington Synge -- dead now for 99 years -- is deep in the throes of a grand relationship.

The playwright's partner is a woman by the name of Garry Hynes, a 55-year-old theater director who has loved Synge's works back into the spotlight -- and in doing so solidified her own status as a master of the stage.

The Irish, after all, have long put their ghosts to good use.

The give and take of this creative kinship will be on display at the Kennedy Center next week as Hynes's company, Druid, brings a double bill of Synge's work to Washington. "The Playboy of the Western World," Synge's best known work, will be followed by "The Shadow of the Glen," a one-act play, during a four-night run starting Wednesday.

Hynes wasn't born a Synge acolyte. Growing up in Ireland in the 1960s, she considered Synge's works "crusty old plays that were written a long time ago and they had nothing to do with me."

Her turnabout on the playwright -- who was born in 1871, became a major Irish literary figure and helped found the Abbey Theatre in Dublin before succumbing to Hodgkin's disease at age 37 -- came shortly after college. After graduation from a university in Galway in 1975, Hynes and two drama club friends decided to form a theater of their own. It would be Ireland's first professional theater company outside of Dublin. And "Playboy" would be their first production.

Hynes remembers thinking, after studying the work, that "this play is not something from 100 years ago. It's very modern. . . . I realized this is an extraordinary play."

In "Playboy," a young man seeks refuge in a County Mayo tavern, claiming he has killed his father and in the process gaining the affection of an already-engaged barmaid. "I think it's one of the most brilliant plays of the 20th-century English language," Hynes says of the comedy. "It is a masterpiece."

Druid staged "Playboy" several times as the theater grew over the years, eventually causing Hynes to joke that Synge was the company's "house playwright."

It became less of a joke in 2005, when Druid decided to stage all six Synge plays in a single, 8 1/2 -hour stretch. The response was overwhelming. The Irish Times called it "one of the greatest achievements in the history of Irish theatre." In 2006, when the marathon of plays came to New York, a New York Times critic called it "a spellbinding pageant of fine words and savagery . . . which will sing in the hearts and minds of those who see it for a long time to come."

"I am delighted by it," Hynes says of the ongoing success of the Synge productions. "It was a big, risky gamble to do all the plays together. And when you embark on something that major, you're obviously scared and you want people to like it -- and come see it, at least."

Hynes calls the project the culmination of what's now become "our lifelong love for Synge's work," including "The Shadow of the Glen," the second play to be staged at the Kennedy Center. The one-act, 30-minute tale is of a loveless marriage between a young woman and a much older sheep farmer that unfolds through scenes of trickery and suspicion. At the time it was first produced, in 1903, Synge was condemned for what critics saw as an affront to Irish womanhood.

Hynes sees it, and all of Synge's works, quite differently.

"Synge was an iconoclast," she says. "He celebrated the life of the spirit and the individual in everybody. Anything that smacked, in his eyes, of conformity would have been seen as reducing the spirit of the individual."

Druid Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. Wednesday-Oct. 25. $65.

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