By Samuel L. Leiter
The Mint Theater, which prides itself on unearthing worthy but forgotten plays, has dug very deeply to come up with The Mountains Look Different, a 1948 play first staged at Dublin’s Gate Theatre by the colorful Irish writer-actor-director-producer Micheál mac Liammóir. This play, and the controversy surrounding its premiere, were both new to me.
You can read about the fascinating mac Liammóir here or here, but the thing I always associated with him was not his plays but the opportunity he offered to Orson Welles when that theatrical and film genius was roaming Ireland, age 16, in the 1930s. His dramatic output appears to be almost entirely overlooked by the major surveys of modern drama. While the comprehensive, doorstopper Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama has an entry on him, it omits The Mountains Look Different from its selected list of his 10 plays.
Very little about the play itself is online but, with its Mint Theatre production beckoning, a couple of online accounts, like this one, have appeared to describe the controversy it sparked. Of course, the Mint’s typically helpful program offers similar information.
The Mountains Look Different turns out to be a generally well-written, if occasionally clumsy, drama of Irish mores, particularly those among rural Irish Catholics. Its somewhat dated essence is the depiction of a prostitute who seeks to cast off her sordid past, a direct (and acknowledged by mac Liammóir) steal from O’Neil’s Anna Christie. It contains the typically vivid language associated with the best of modern Irish (or Irish-British) drama, from Synge to O’Casey to McDonagh, offers actors juicy dialect roles, and has a familiar but effectively melodramatic situation and structure.
What it doesn’t have in the Mint Theater’s inadequate production, staged by Aidan Redmond, is the powerfully insightful direction and exceptional ensemble acting so apparent in the Irish Rep’s recent three-play cycle of O’Casey plays, or in the Broadway production of Englishman Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. With such boiling, Irish-flavored theatre available just now, The Mountains Look Different slides precipitously off its slippery slope.
The action is set on June 23, known as Midsummer Night or St. John’s Eve, when bonfires are lit in the mountain villages as part of a pre-Christian celebration intended to bring good luck to the participants. Tom Grealish (Jesse Pennington, in the role created by mac Liammóir himself), in his early 30s, returns to the farm where he lives with his da, Martin (Con Horgan).
With him is the “swanky,” if overdressed, Bairbre Joyce (Brenda Meaney), whom he married three days earlier. Trustingly, he believes her to have been employed as a hotel manager; in fact, she’s a country girl who left Ireland at 16 and, for 13 years, has been a London prostitute. She wants to abandon that profession to live cleanly in the mountainous Irish countryside, “where there’s nobody that knows nothing about anything.” Feeling stained by her past, she still has not slept with Tom, naïve and patient, waiting for when she feels she will be doing so out of love.
Martin, believed, incongruously, by Tom to be saintly, if stern, is a hulking, taciturn figure who recognizes Bairbre immediately for who she is, having slept with her (which he claims to have been his only sin) on a brief trip to London nine years earlier. She fails to recognize him at first, but eventually admits her past. At first, he treats her cruelly. Later, he decides to blackmail her by threatening to reveal her secret to Tom unless she has sex with him in the stable. Bairbre takes advantage of this opportunity to end her troubles, with tragic results.
Of course, there’s much more, including a number of “backwardy” local folk, like Bartley (Daniel Marconi), Martin’s young serving-man, whose fresh attitude causes the tart-tongued Bairbre to shock him when she says, “You be careful of that slit in your mug or you’d get another, see.” Or Batty Wallace (Liam Forde), the tin-whistle-playing, deaf, village idiot; his talkative grandma, Máire (Cynthia Mace); Bridin (McKenna Quigley Harrington), Bartley’s girlfriend; and Matthew Conroy (Paul O’Brien), Bairbre’s uncle, ignorant of her past and prepared to leave his profitable mill to her when he dies. Forde, Mace, and O’Brien do acceptable work; the others not so much.
For all the play’s more obvious weaknesses, like having Martin go indoors without waiting to greet his arriving son and his bride so that the latter can first have an expository scene outside, or the abrupt confession that ends the play almost before it sinks in, there’d still be enough here to sustain interest if it were better done.
The flame-tressed Meaney gives a quality performance as Bairbre, conveying both her strength, forthrightness, and vulnerability; it would be even better if she was able to put more sting into the part of her personality that slings derogatory comments when she gets her dander up.
Horgan and Pennington, the male leads, however, are seriously out of tune. Horgan has the physical demeanor and surly swagger but it’s all external; he mumbles his thickly accented dialogue, and keeps things emotionally too close to the vest. What should be a roaring fire barely simmers, especially when he confronts Bairbre at the kitchen table. Victor McGlaglen would have devoured this role; since he’s been long gone, Michael Mellamphy of the Irish Rep would be my next choice.
Far more problematic is Jesse Pennington’s Tom, who muffles his words while slinking around with his hands deep in his pockets when they’re not rushing through his hair, his body twisting this way and that, without even being able to control the wayward behavior of his white shirt. And if you’ve ever read my comments on actors who don’t know how to hold a cigarette, much less smoke one, Pennington is Exhibit No. 1.
The title, The Mountains Look Different, implies that some things never change. Late in the play, Bairbre declares to Tom her own inability to change:
“Oh I thought I could be different because after I met yourself I look different in my own eyes. But it was only in my eyes—like the mountains. See? The mountains look different from this place in my eyes. But all the while they’re the same aren’t they? You can’t change them, you can’t change anything.”
Most of us would have reason to doubt the accuracy of Bairbre’s viewpoint because we want to believe change is possible. With that in mind, I look forward to the next Mint Theater production.
The Mountains Look Different. Through July 14 at Beckett Theatre/Theatre Row (410 West. 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). www.minttheater.org
Photos: Todd Cerveris