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Three brothers plus one night plus too much free time: In the hands of a contemporary Irish playwright, you can imagine what that adds up to. Conor McPherson’s This Lime Tree Bower—first staged in 1995, when this now-celebrated writer was hardly into his 20s—employs a laid-back calculus of loss and longing, of bottled-up anger and drink-drowned disgust, to tell a story about three unlikely co-conspirators and the lunatic plan that unites them one dead-end winter.
It should be noted that the three characters are not all, strictly speaking, brothers: Ray, the boozily cynical philosophy professor played with such leonine sullenness by Eric Lucas, is merely the steady if unfaithful boyfriend of the sister of underemployed Frank (Dan Brick) and uncertain high-schooler Joe (Joe Baker), whose mom has died a glacial death from what sounds like Alzheimer’s and whose quietly shattered dad keeps stubbornly, slowly killing himself at the fish-and-chips place he runs in their Irish seaside town. But we never meet these other characters, and there’s something acutely fraternal about the blend of contempt and concern that laces Ray’s distanced watchfulness during the others’ speeches—and what happens once Frank gets his big idea, in any case, binds them closer than many a brother.
That big idea begins with Frank’s simmering rage at the local bookie, a low-key sort of hard case who’s got their dad on the hook for a couple of grand. The shame of the debt is part of what’s destroying the old man, and Frank decides that a mysterious maybe–IRA veteran and the pistol he can presumably procure are the right first steps toward sorting the situation out.
Meanwhile, in monologues that don’t so much overlap as glance in each other’s direction, at least until after intermission, Ray details a binge involving more booze and more students and more bedrooms than would seem entirely wise, while young Joe narrates an adolescent obsession with a schoolmate that may be simply a crush—or may be the first emergent signs of a sexuality his family might not be ready to embrace. What’s interesting about the former is how clearly and convincingly, and how early, a journeyman playwright is able to frame it as a manifestation of Ray’s poisonous self-loathing; what’s interesting about the latter is that it’s less the point of Joe’s storyline than a piece of a larger and movingly lyrical picture of a yearning that will get broken into pieces by a betrayal. Twenty-four McPherson was when he wrote this one, and already a haunted sort of poet.
It’s interesting, watching Robert McNamara’s SCENA production so hard on the heels of Solas Nua’s similarly confessional Howie the Rookie (which ran until Feb. 5 in the same space, featuring Brick as yet another unmoored Irishman stumbling haplessly into casual criminality): The atmospheres and the milieus and the structural tricks have plenty in common, but McPherson’s rhythms are so much more relaxed than Mark O’Rowe’s jittery scene-making that the two Dubliners might as well be working in different languages.
I’ve never seen Eric Lucas look awkward on a stage before, but he seems a little ill at ease with Ray—a character, it’s worth noting, whose academic rivalries and extracurricular disenchantments might be difficult for any actor to integrate convincingly. When he’s not occupying the narrative spotlight, though, he watches beautifully, like a big cat, all coiled curiosity and disdain. Baker makes a straightforward, earnest case for Joe, whose enthusiasms and uncertainties and emotional hairpins have a genuine whiff of teen spirit about them. And Brick delivers an impressively nuanced Frank, burying what would appear to be substantial reserves of anger and ache behind the character’s blunt workin’-fella façade. He shifts on a shilling, with just the smallest of changes in expression, from open-faced eager to hard-eyed cold, and his version of bleary-eyed, sidelong sly is pretty much priceless.
The production keeps itself to itself, with subtly expressive costuming by Kate Turner-Walker, a striking-on-a-shoestring set by Daniel Schrader, and unfussy room-temperature lighting (by Marianne Meadows) that heats up nicely for one dramatic episode in a churchyard. And McNamara, gratifyingly, directs with a light hand, seating his three players at a wooden table and staying out of their way while they spin their stories; it wouldn’t look much like direction at all, in fact, except for the careful way he’s kept the listeners focused on the tale-teller in each monologue, allowing each speaker in turn the freedom to engage the audience’s eye. It’s a surprisingly effective trick, with instant intimacy the payoff: At the evening’s close, when young Joe flashes back to that churchyard and the white-faced memory of what happened there, it’s hard to think of leaving him alone to grapple with its implications.CP