By Marilyn Lester
In The Naturalists, the Pond Theatre Company has tackled an ambitious play by Irish playwright Jaki McCarrick, featuring an interesting premise and strong acting by the Irish-born cast of four. This latter fact does inform their interpretation of the piece, since it’s rooted in the relatively recent Irish history of the conflict in Northern Ireland between the British and Irish Republican rebels. Yet, even though “The Troubles” were a deeply affecting part of that history, the passing of years and a problematic narrative don’t allow the cast to mine the depths of the horrors that dominated news feeds in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
Playwright McCarrick has said that The Naturalists isn’t about The Troubles. Indeed, any truly successful work should ultimately transcend its plot device and shoot its arrow straight into the heart of the human condition. Alas, The Naturalists skims the surface of character and emotion without going to those deep places of the soul. With a largely expository text, the characters tell us what they’re thinking or feeling, but are barred from delving further into motivations past or present.
The play is set in rural County Monaghan, in a backwater of the Irish Republic, on the border of County Down, Northern Ireland. Its springboard is a true incident that occurred near McCarrick’s home in 1979. On August 27th, 18 British soldiers were killed in a bombing, a news story eclipsed by the death of Lord Mountbatten, also via an IRA assault, on the same day. McCarrick doesn’t remember the incident, but the knowledge of it gave her the basis of the play.
The Naturalists is set in 2010, 31 years after the fact, already presenting a problem in credibility in the manner contrasting three broken-down male characters, at least in their early 50s, against the particular motivations of a vital young woman hovering around the age of 20. With the exception of the girl, the actors who play the men are in young middle age and far from presenting as the old curmudgeons they’re meant to be in the text. The brothers, Francis and Billy Sloane, are played respectively by John Keating and Tim Ruddy, a pair of seasoned actors whose talent and experience make the most of the flawed narrative. Into their lives comes young Josie Larmer, played unevenly by Sarah Street. Josie is 20ish, unsettled, the clichéd Young Person trying to find herself. Presumably, she will discover her true destiny with Francis and Billy.
Not much happens of consequence in the long and talky first act; much of the dialog reflects the worn cliché found in many Irish plays – two siblings living alone together with the shadow of their domineering, but departed Mammy. The action comes in the second act with the arrival of Francis’ old pal, John-Joe Doherty, played with a combination of delicious menace and risible crudity by Michael Mellamphy. It’s here that the secrets of the past spill out, but despite action-hero antics, the denouement is a let-down. In particular, without strong character development, being asked to accept the transformation of Francis from a rabid IRA capo to a lily-wielding child of nature is a stretch,
There are plenty of excellent themes in The Naturalists, plus literate writing and some terrific comic bits, but the sum of the parts doesn’t quite gel. Ultimately the journey of the play and its characters is a meandering walk in the woods with a predictable result. Co-directors, Colleen Clinton and Lily Dorment (with Street the cofounders of Pond) have performed serviceably to respectfully mount The Naturalists. However, because they chose this work to produce, a keener eye to the length of the piece (it runs nearly two and a half hours) is called for; it might have been more effective if some dramaturgical work had been applied to tighten the script.
Scenic design was conceived by Chika Shimizu and costume design by Grier Coleman. Lighting design by Caitlin Smith Rapoport could have done more to provide atmosphere and time of day differentiation. Sound design by Christopher Ross-Ewart smartly supported the many scene changes of the play.
The Pond Theatre Company’s Production of The Naturalists runs till September 23 at Walkerspace, 46 Walker St., New York, N.Y. For tickets, go to www.thepondtheatre.org or call 212-279-4200.