Charmer: Thom Gorrebeeck's Christy is irresistible to Shannon Stowe's Pegeen Mike.
Pear Avenue's 'Playboy of the Western World' travels to J.M. Synge's Irish coast
By Marianne Messina
O N THE 100th anniversary of John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, Pear Avenue Theater's warm production envelops us in Synge's Irish west coast without pretension or straining. With a historic sense of detail, set designer Michael Walsh has captured both the desolation and the hominess of County Mayo's rural coast—the whitewashed stone, the dark-wood floor and rickety front door, the turf-fired hearth, the bare wooden tables and chairs. Like the countryside, the room feels isolated and only warmed by the visitors who stop there.
Doubling as a home and a poteen (pa-CHEEN, a kind of Irish moonshine) bar, the place is owned by Michael Flaherty (John Baldwin) and run by his 20-year-old daughter, Pegeen Mike (Shannon Stowe). When the dirty-faced Christy Mahon (Thom Gorrebeeck) wanders into the establishment, he strikes Pegeen's fancy, and she sees her chance to escape a looming, dull marriage to Shawn Keogh (Josh Sigal). Likewise, Christy is soon buffing her boots, admiring the boot brush and exclaiming, "Isn't it grand brushes she has!"
Steeped in a dialect of imagistic expressions, sometimes outlandish or insulting, the play's perpetual charm goes across all characters. Pegeen calls Shawn "a midlin' kind a' scarecrow," and her father wonders what "puny weeds" she and Shawn would have together. Christy confesses that he's on the run after he took a loy to his father's head and left him "split to the nob of his gullet" and presumably dead. Rather than making Christy a fearsome stranger, this act makes him the exotic unknown, the playboy. Not only does it endear him to Pegeen, but the town girls gather round him like he's a rock star, and the sensible but lonely Widow Quinn tries to entice Christy to her house. "Wait till you see the leaky thatches," Pegeen snaps. "Two fine women fightin' for the likes of me," the former farm boy says in amazement. "Wasn't I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the years gone by."
Almost to the man, the superb cast in this production wields the thick dialect, picturesque descriptions and rich, poetic language as if it were their own. Those not familiar with the dialect will have to call on patience. With time, the language becomes more transparent and starts to pay off in humor. Redheaded Stowe seems to have been made for this part. Her Pegeen always shows both the vulnerable side—the wish for something beyond her world, even if it's her own creation—and the caustic side: "I the fright of seven townlands for my biting tongue." And her smitten looks when Christy amazes her with his tales call up the flush of teenaged hormones.
Each character in this production brings some charm to the empty hearth. Nicole Lungerhausen's Widow Quinn seems to have buried her warmth deep inside her pragmatism. And yet it tip-toes out when she reaches a comforting hand to Christy, offering both aid and seduction. Sigal, a doughy Shawn, speaks with an endearing huff, as if he has a mouth full of sod, but when he says Pegeen needs a simple man like himself, he's easy to root for. Round and red-faced John Baldwin makes a happy drunk kind of father who, though distanced by drink, cares in his way for Pegeen. And Dan Roach manages to make Christy's father sympathetic. Though Christy's version of his "Da" suggests he's an abusive guy, and Old Mahon's often played as a lout who can only be subdued by similar abuse, Roach makes him happy to see his son take charge.
A fire glows in the hearth throughout the show, foreshadowing the climactic four-man struggle. Christy's long speeches in this climax always make it hard to keep the stage action churning, and here it got a little muddled when the main action was obscured behind the table. Given the goings on, the play can tell a harsh, even savage tale, but in adopting a more wistful tone, this production sees good people confined in a small place rather than a rude place revealing the nastiness of all.
The Playboy of the Western World, a Pear Avenue Theatre production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through June 10 at the Pear, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View. Tickets are $10–$25. (650.254.1148)
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