August 25, 2010

An Unfulfilled "Wife to James Whelan"

The eight words most commonly used by diehard theater lovers may be: “They don’t make them like they used to.”  But that may be because we have such a distorted sense of what they used to make. It’s the greatest hits (works by Shakespeare, Molière, Chekhov and O’Neill) that get taught and revived, not the one-play wonders or Salieri-style crowd-pleasers that filled the stages in those days. It would be as though you defined contemporary Broadway solely in terms of Sweeney Todd with no mention of Mamma Mia! 

And that’s why, regardless of how I might feel about an individual production, I so like seeing shows at the Mint Theatre Company.  For the Mint specializes in works by playwrights who have been forgotten and those of well-known writers that have been overlooked, filling out the picture of what the old days really looked like.

Wife to James Whelan, which opened there on Monday night, falls into the forgotten playwright category.  It was written by Teresa Deevy, an Irish woman who had six plays produced at Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre in the 1930s. An achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that a rare disease caused Deevy to completely lose her hearing when she was 20, a whole decade before her run at the Abbey began (click here to read a New York Times profile about her).

The Abbey turned down Wife to James Whelan.  Disappointed but undaunted, Deevy continued to work on the play and it was eventually produced by an Abbey off-shoot called The Players Theater.  But, at least as presented in this production directed by the Mint’s executive director Jonathan Bank, I sympathize with the Abbey’s decision.

The play tells the story of a charismatic and quick-tempered young Irishman who puts work and success above love.  At the beginning of the show’s first three acts the 21 year-old Whelan is about to leave his village for a better job in Dublin.  He’s also leaving behind two women who adore him (nicely played by Janie Brookshire and Rosie Benton). By the second act, seven years have passed and Whelan has returned home with enough money to start a business and to begin a flirtation with the daughter of the richest man in town (a lively turn by Liv Rooth).

It’s a nice slice of Irish life in the ‘30s but Deevy seems uncertain about the message she wants to serve up.  Her theme is an update of those old 19th century novels of thwarted passion like Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge” (which I confess is not one of my favorites) but less sharply honed.  

Wife to James Whelan leans heavily on how the audience feels about the title character and its concern for how he balances his passions. Alas, actor Shawn Fagan, who has done most of his work in regional theaters from the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival to the Dallas Theater Center, isn’t strong enough to bear this weight.

Part of the problem for me may be (and I know how tacky this is going to sound) Fagan's height. His Whelan is just about the shortest person on the stage and it just doesn’t come across as convincing when his rages are supposed to intimidate the other male characters. It seems equally awkward when two of the women have to slump a bit and scrunch their shoulders to keep from towering over him.  That’s not to say that short actors can’t be forceful (hello, James Cagney) and sexy (hey there, Billy Crudup) but Fagan isn’t able to pull it off and his inability to inject any sense of danger into his performance saps the energy out of the play.

The rest of the cast fares better—particularly the women—but they all wrestle with their Irish accents and with the tone of the play.  Bank is clearly beguiled by Deevy (he traveled to her hometown in Ireland and has set up a whole schedule of Deevy-related events over the next month) but he hasn’t found a way to bring the fascination home for me. Although several other critics seem to have been persuaded (click here to read some of their reviews) and the show has been extended through Oct. 3.


Aaron Riccio said...

I actually liked his height; it made it seem even more like he was always struggling to compensate for something.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Ah, I only wish he'd struggled with more vigor.