The much-anticipated summer repertory lineup from Arlington's Keegan Theatre is a chance for the critically acclaimed troupe to stretch its talents with rarely performed or new material before taking off for its annual fall tour of Ireland with an American classic. Both plays on the program this year are world premieres from local playwrights, one of whom can be seen onstage, although not in his play.
In rotation are "An Island of No Land at All: The Story of O'Malley of Shanganagh" by Peter Coy and "Tattoo Sky" by Eric Lucas. "Island" is a lyrical, moody love story based on the work of Irish American author and poet Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne (1889-1929), and "Tattoo Sky," a seriocomic and very modern exercise in fatalism, seems inspired by Sam Shepard's plays of the American West. "Island" is more ambitious, but "Tattoo Sky" is ultimately more satisfying, although both plays will likely be revised before being staged again.
Coy challenges the audience to pay close attention with his overwrought drama detailing the life of Irishman deBourke O'Malley, who persuades a neurotic novice to leave a convent and marry him. The restless couple roam Europe in the late 1800s, seeking refuge from the disapproval of their neighbors outside Dublin as well as from the woman's demons. A sense of tragedy weighs heavily over all that transpires, as the tale is anchored by the gloomy reflections of an enigmatic character in and around an Irish pub.
As O'Malley, Eric Lucas struggles against his matinee-idol looks as the character devolves from swaggering man of the world to a haunted creature unable to control his own destiny. Ghillian Porter makes a similar journey, transforming from a ravishingly beautiful, seemingly fresh and innocent young woman to a brittle vessel of guilty secrets as O'Malley's wife, Joan. Brian Hemmingsen commands the attention of numerous pub denizens as Mr. Moore, whose name spawns considerable confusion and speculation. Some words of advice: Ignore the character's name. "Island" is unwieldy and unfocused, but the atmosphere is dreamy, and the performances are striking.
Lucas and the "Island" cast are directed by Mark Rhea, who in turn is directed by Lucas in Lucas's play "Tattoo Sky." It is almost never a good idea for a playwright to direct his or her own new work, as a fresh perspective is usually needed to exploit a play's strengths and minimize its weaknesses. So even though the production is enjoyable, the full potential of this quirky, three-character play might not yet be realized.
Holed up in a ramshackle Nevada desert house with a suitcase full of cash under the bed, sulky Ray and high-spirited Meg are suffering acute cabin fever, going at each other as if in a low-rent version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" But here, the wolf is at the door in the form of the seedy, inscrutable Taylor, who inserts himself into the couple's lives for his own dark purposes.
As Ray, Rhea dips into the same bag of tricks he used for the two similar, surly characters he played in last summer's repertory plays, "A Lie of the Mind" and "Buried Child," both, perhaps not coincidentally, by Sam Shepard. Once again, he is physically battered, emotionally crippled and smoldering. Susan Rhea (Mark's wife) energetically plays Meg as a firecracker, her voice a comic twang as she goes for the laughs with Lucas's word games. The play quickly veers into creepy territory when Kevin Adams as Taylor vividly explores his character's sadistic streak.
As with "Island," there are tricks being played in "Tattoo Sky." Things are not always as they seem at first. But the dialogue is rich, and the play will hold your interest, even if Lucas doesn't quite get where he seems to want to go.
"An Island of No Land at All: The Story of O'Malley of Shanganagh" and "Tattoo Sky" by Keegan Theatre are running in rotation through July 10 at Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The is no performance this Sunday.
For schedule information, visit www.keegantheatre.com or call 703-527-6000. For tickets, call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com. Tickets are $22 to $25 for an individual show or $30 for both shows.