Druid Brews Up A Double Draft Of Irish Laughter

Fergal McElherron, bottom left, John Olahan, top left, and Marcus Lamb in the Druid Theatre production of
Fergal McElherron, bottom left, John Olahan, top left, and Marcus Lamb in the Druid Theatre production of "The Playboy of the Western World." (Nick Burchell/Kennedy Center)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008

After a character with a gaping head wound makes his entrance in Druid Theatre's satisfyingly madcap "The Playboy of the Western World," one might expect someone else onstage at the Kennedy Center to administer first aid. But as it turns out, this is neither the time nor the place for one humane soul to show kindness to another.

In the dusty, ramshackle backwater where this classic Irish comedy is set, a visitor's dire condition merely provides a break from the provincial torpor. Which is why, apparently, a local busybody can climb onto a stool and place a finger into the man's raw, festering flesh without a thought for civility -- or hygiene.

You can't help but laugh at the intrusion, perpetrated with expert nonchalance by actress Catherine Walsh. Pain and entertainment seem to go hand in hand in the landscape of "Playboy," the most celebrated work of the Irish playwright John Millington Synge, who died young (in 1909, at age 37) and yet still has served as a model for generations of Irish dramatists. (They include the contemporary Martin McDonagh, whose blood-soaked "Lieutenant of Inishmore," now at Signature Theatre, feels as if it is a direct descendant of Synge's play.)

Druid is the Galway-based theater company led by Garry Hynes, best known for her Tony-winning direction of McDonagh's "Beauty Queen of Leenane," and who directed the Kennedy Center's 2004 "A Streetcar Named Desire." The company has toured widely with its program of the complete works of Synge, titled "DruidSynge." The troupe pares down that production here at the Terrace Theater, offering two of the pieces, directed by Hynes: Synge's early one-act "Shadow of the Glen" and his three-act "Playboy."

The company takes on these comedies at full gallop, as if performing Synge were a birthright -- the way, for instance, the National Theater of Greece embraces Sophocles' "Electra." This makes for a lively night, although one that also places an onus on the audience: The peculiar rhythms and locutions of Synge's language, and the thick dialect that the actors employ, present challenges to American listeners. It is a wee bit of frustration for an unaccustomed ear to struggle to process the words, which come at you in feverish arpeggios. (It's essential to consult the lexicon that has been inserted into your program.)

So, yes, some amount of work is required, even as the Druid actors are making seamless, joyful contact with the plays' operatically demonstrative rural folk.

The half-hour-long "Shadow of the Glen" is an appetizer, a piece that gives one the opportunity to settle into both Synge's cadences and his brand of hard-knock comedy. It takes place in set designer Francis O'Connor's aromatic rendering of a primitive cottage (bare furniture, dirt floors) on the east coast of Ireland. The work is a slice of unfortunate pastoral life, a portrait of the benighted marriage of a dyspeptic codger (Tom Hickey) to a younger woman (Walsh, again) eager for an exit.

The old man, in a sense, beats her to it; the curtain rises to reveal that he has been laid out for his wake. What follows on the mournful tableau is a surprise, and a dramatic shift in tone, as we discover among other things that the wife is not to be rewarded for her years of forbearance.

The ambiguities in this atmospheric playlet are a counterpoint to the more brutal certainties of the evening's main event. "The Playboy of the Western World" concerns the tizzy that a village in County Mayo is thrown into by a disheveled young stranger (Simon Boyle), who captivates everyone with a story that would have the opposite effect in a locale less easily impressed.

Boyle's Christy Mahon reveals to the denizens of a shabby tavern that he has killed his "Da," a confession that instantly makes him a prize catch for every woman in town, including Pegeen Mike (Sarah-Jane Drummey), comely daughter of the local publican (John Olahan). A violent flouting of the law in these parts is an aphrodisiac. In the topsy-turvy logic of a place where obedience doesn't get you very far, the more savage an image Christy can fashion, the more desirable he becomes.

From Olahan's conjuring of the generosity that's manufactured by drink, to Walsh's depiction of widowhood desperate for the relief of a warm male body, the actors fill this town to the gleeful, exhibitionist brim. You can feel the energy and affection they bring to the project. Boyle invests Christy with the antic grace of an anxiety-ridden circus clown, a course calculated to make his magnetism all the more laughable. Drummey's Pegeen is rooted serenely in the piece's absurdist soil. Even as you wait for the character to come to her senses, Drummey allows the infatuation to appear utterly rational.

It's fun, too, watching the growth of Christy's celebrity status; the girls of the village clamor for him at the door to the public house as if he were Mayo's answer to Zac Efron. That the worship leads to a final, slapstick rumble affirms a seemingly eternal rule of stardom: Oh, how we love brutalizing our idols after we learn their hypocrisies are mirrors of our own.

The Shadow of the Glen and The Playboy of the Western World, by John Millington Synge. Directed by Garry Hynes. Costumes, Kathy Strachan; lighting, Davy Cunningham; sound, John Leonard; movement, David Bolger; composer, Sam Jackson. With Marcus Lamb, Peter Gowen, Tom Hickey, Kelly Gough, Caoilfhionn Dunne, John Olahan, Hannah McCabe. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Performances tonight and tomorrow night at 7:30 at the Kennedy Center. Call 202-467-4600 or visit

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