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In the closing line of This Lime Tree Bower, one of the protagonists, Joe, offers a plot summary: “Things started out good and ended up better. Is that cheating?” It’s a commentary on the conduct of the other two rascally characters in Conor McPherson’s 1995 work, a kind of perverse morality play with a striking lack of any moral consequence.
The question denotes a growing sense of self-awareness for Joe, the youngest and least reprehensible of the lot. But this might as well be a question directed by McPherson at the audience, who could, in turn, ask “then what the hell did we sit here for two hours for?”
It’s true, not much happens in This Lime Tree Bower—in terms of stage action, nothing at all happens, in fact. The entire play contains no dialogue or interaction between the three characters Joe, Frank, and Ray. Instead, it consists of a series of monologues in which the three take turns telling a single long, meandering story that doesn’t have a point other than being “the two weirdest days of [Joe’s] life.” And it takes a while to get to the weird stuff. Joe is a sexually frustrated and confused high school student with a crush on an unseen classmate, Damian. Frank is Joe’s older brother, who runs a fish-and-chip restaurant in a coastal town in Ireland, where the play is set, and is preoccupied with debts owed by their father to a local bookie. And Ray, a barely functional alcoholic and university lecturer who likes to sleep with his students, is an acquaintance of theirs, because one of those students is Joe and Frank’s sister (also unseen).
The tale eventually takes a criminal turn, with Joe being implicated in a crime he didn’t commit, and Frank and Ray not being implicated in one that they did. There isn’t much suspense regarding the outcome, but that’s not really what concerns McPherson. It’s the telling of the tale itself, through the varied viewpoints of the three characters. This is not a Rashomon-type mystery, and it’s not like the wordplay is particularly florid or deep: McPherson writes in a plain vernacular with understated humor. It’s ostensibly a comedy, but the only real gag is Joe’s repeatedly asserted (heterosexual) crush on “Deborah… something.” The plot exists to flesh out the personalities of the three characters, none of them particularly original: a naïve boy coming of age, a desperate man pushed to action, and a shameless lothario. The play’s true climax concerns neither of the crimes but rather one of Ray’s vomit-soaked benders.
The three actors in Quotidian Theatre’s production give convincing portrayals of their characters’ idiosyncrasies: A wide-eyed Chris Stinson draws easy sympathy for Joe and his earnest struggle with adolescent identity. David Mavricos plays Frank as the world-weary everyman, doing what anyone might do with thousands of pounds of debt and easy access to northern guns (this is pre-euro, pre-Good Friday Agreement Ireland). And Michael Avolio has the most fun role of the degenerate Ray, though he resists making him a cartoon drunk, remarking on his vices quite matter-of-factly, as if discussing the weather.
This Lime Tree Bower, named for a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, is one of McPherson’s earlier plays, before he hit it big with 1997’s The Weir. The play’s extended monologue structure is a relatively common one in Irish theater, based on the tradition of the Irish shanachie, or storyteller. Like this one, The Weir was told as a series of monologues, but one with more magical folkloric elements. (The only folklore in This Lime Tree Bower is a passing reference to the IRA.) McPherson has since gone on to write plays in which the characters actually do stuff and talk to each other, which are likely more fun for American audiences not versed in the shanachie tradition. But in this era of live storytelling open mics and podcasts, it’s not as strange as it might be. It’s like The Moth, with a lot more “gobshites.”
4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. $15–$30. (301) 816-1023. quotidiantheatre.org.