As the home to Irish Fest, the largest celebration Celtic arts and culture in North America, it’s not that surprising Milwaukee would have two leading theaters producing Irish-themed love stories at the same time. Currently Milwaukee Chamber Theatre is staging "Chapatti," and Next Act is offering "Outside Mullingar," which runs through Oct. 21.
Starring real-life couple David Cecsarini and Deborah Staples as reluctant but destined lovers, "Mullingar" features outstanding performances by a top-notch cast and a few surprises during moments of tension between the extremes of loneliness and connection, arguments and silence, old ways and new, resentment and forgiveness, action and inaction. Unfortunately that tension is sometimes overwhelmed by a sentimentality that is too easily assigned to tales from the Emerald Isle.
"Mullingar" playwright and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley came to his Irish heritage for inspiration late in life. The product of two Irish-Americans, he grew up in the Bronx, absorbing the lives, voices and customs of the Italian families that thrived around him, leading Shanley to his early hits "Moonstruck" and "Italian American Reconciliation." Then, like millions of Americans before him, he returned to the "auld sod" to reconnect with his ancestors’ roots and meet some long-lost cousins. The result of that trip is his 2014 play "Outside Mullingar," which is making the rounds of regional theaters after a Broadway run.
In a pre-show talk, director Ed Morgan described the play as a story filtered through an Irish-American lens – and indeed, it checks a lot of the popular St. Patrick’s Day/leprechaun tropes. There’s Guinness and superstitions, a sad Irish tune recalling a long lost love, stories full of blarney about blokes at the pub, a penchant for dark humor, a dogged concern for legacy and plenty of stubbornness to go around.
As Anthony, David Cecsarini is circumspect and tired. He is the good son who has stayed on the country homestead to take care of his aging father and run the farm that’s been in the family for more than a century. Rejected by a long ago girlfriend, underestimated and mocked by his father, worn out by the physical demands of working the land singlehanded and stuck in his unhappiness, Cecsarini walks through the play like a cursed man, focusing on keeping his disappointment bottled up and his hopes buried. His mouth gathered tightly, his muscles tensed, he works to stifle his own wishes and refuses to advocate for his own interests.
As his neighbor Rosemary, Deborah Staples is his opposite in temperament. Playmates and adversaries since they were small children, the now 40-something lass is unafraid to lash out when she’s provoked and leads with her chin. Staples wears long, curly, brunette hair like a soft sweater around her shoulders, in contrast to her practical farm clothes, sturdy shoes and straightforward attitude. Even grieving for her recently deceased father she’s sharp as a tack.
But as the play progresses, her scenes with Cecsarini exude both the warmth and comfort of familiarity and the yearning for deeper feelings to be expressed concretely. There is a delightful push-pull to their relationship that is sustained until the very last moments of the show.
Anthony’s father Tony (James Pickering) and Rosemary’s mother Aoife (Carrie Hitchcock) also do some good natured bickering at the top of the play. Neighbors who have both lost their spouses, they speak plainly about their own impending ends but hang on to silly grudges they’ve harbored for decades. Disappointed and confused about the peculiarities of their children, they speculate about an uncertain future that they won’t be part of.
Hitchcock easily adopts the slight stoop and slower movements of the frail Aoife but allows the curtain of age to part when their conversations become animated. Her distinctive voice cuts through Pickering’s bluster as they argue. As Tony, Pickering is full of the restless grumpiness of old men who want to be left alone but can’t abide their loss of authority or utility. Full of old anecdotes and warnings about his son’s leanings towards the "unbalanced" side of the family, Pickering’s eyes grow wide as if he’s telling a ghost stories around a fire.
Although the play is normally performed without an intermission, Morgan has inserted one here between the middle and final scenes, in order to accommodate a large set change. That pause adds some unnecessary melodrama to the play, forcing the audience to dwell on a death in the family – again overwhelming the story. And while Rosemary’s hyper-realistic kitchen, assembled during intermission, is beautifully detailed by scenic designer Rick Rasmssen, it’s so underutilized by the actors, one wonders why they bothered. Morgan’s blocking is remarkably static throughout the show, and is ground to a halt in the final scene.
To compound the problem, the script contains eleventh hour confessions from both Anthony and Rosemary that don’t really ring true, but Cecsarini and Staples do all they can to move the story efficiently towards its resolution. But it’s an ending we can see from far off, over the stone fences, across the rolling green hills, where there’s the smell of peat burning in the stove, and the sound of merry fiddles, tin whistles and accordions in the air.