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When does feasting give way to gluttony? Does appetite run rampant only after restraints are loosed, or is overindulgence a natural consequence of abundance?
I ask because I find I am made more hungry this week, not less, by what qualifies as an orgy of linguistic excess. For months now, D.C. theatergoers have been dining on an uncharacteristically rich diet of poetry. The Washington Shakespeare Company’s astringent Waiting for Godot served as a useful palate cleanser in April, and virtually everything since has qualified as a verbal banquet of one sort or another: the florid imagery of Tennessee Williams everywhere you turn, lyricism run amok in Cripple of Inishmaan, Beatrice and Benedick spouting epigrams while swatting cicadas, the gorgeous extravagance of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Amid so much plenty, no reasonable person would expect also to encounter a ravishing new script from a local playwright, but that’s what the Keegan Theater is serving up at the Clark Street Playhouse. A moody Irish romance by Peter Coy, An Island of No Land at All: The Story of Shanganagh is a grand, overstuffed cornucopia of a play, steeped in folklore and garlanded with poetry. It is, at nearly three hours, almost certainly too much of a good thing. Paeans to heathered glens and wild Hibernian moons occasionally overwhelm what is, at heart, a simple story of love gone wrong, but the flights of linguistic fancy with which Coy conjures his characters are undeniably an attraction in themselves.
The tale emerges in fits and starts as a sort of barroom rhapsody, narrated by a dyspeptic geezer named Moore (Brian Hemmingsen) as he downs pints in a pub that sits far enough upstage that it can simply fade into the background when the author wants to depict a tryst down front in a hillside convent. The tryst involves DeBourke O’Malley (Eric Lucas), an earnest young sailor who’s traveled the world, only to find he misses the Emerald Isle of his youth. Returning to his old haunts, he fills his days with long walks, on one of which he spies Joan (Ghillian Porter), a fragile young nun, and falls in love. Joan is smitten, too, and O’Malley, charmed by her habit of babbling nursery rhymes when nervous, urges her to elope with him so he can show her the glories of Paris and the beaches of Monte Carlo.
Now, romantic these two young lovers may be, but even so early in their romance, there are intimations that their relationship may not be an altogether good thing. The narrator is given to furious explosions whenever someone broaches the subject of love, and if his rage is quickly dismissed (“The anger of old men is a terrible and pathetic thing”), it nonetheless adds a disquieting undercurrent to the evening. “There will be,” Moore notes in a reflective moment, “more than one account of reality given tonight.” And when the judgments of others start to cloud the central couple’s outlook—causing the heroine’s rhymes to morph from charming affectation to desperate tic, setting the hero to rhapsodizing about gypsies and the mirage that gives the play its title—it becomes clear that not everyone in the story has both feet planted firmly in the real world.
Happily, Mark A. Rhea’s staging is as grounded as it is smart. The troupe long ago adopted Ireland as a second home of sorts, and the plays of Brian Friel and Brendan Behan have given its actors a comfort level with this evening’s accents and ambiance. Lucas is measured and appealing as O’Malley—square-shouldered and upbeat at the outset, increasingly stooped by grief as he realizes how much is amiss in his marriage. Porter’s early buoyancy makes her later disintegration all the more affecting, and Hemmingsen’s miserable old coot anchors the evening with an outsized melancholy and an eerie air of menace. The director has marshaled adequate performances from the rest of the company as well, though he could really do all his actors (and the playwright) a favor by editing the descriptive chatter a bit. Nearly all of it is evocative, but sometimes what’s being evoked has precious little to do with the characters’ plights, or even their frames of mind.
Stefan M. Gibson’s brooding setting, which wraps a paneled central barroom inside a rocky crag, allows the characters to clamber ever higher as they send Coy’s dialogue soaring. The playwright based the evening on the writings of Donn Byrne, who evidently had both an ear for idiom and a strong affection for characters who can be described—as one is here—as “a man alone with his own self—too long with his own self.”
And boy, has Coy set them to talking—in aching paragraphs about the lure of adventure and the blaze of happiness—even as their lives collapse. You’d think it would all be too rich/thick/precious and most of all too Irish, but somehow it’s not. I figured that after weeks of Williams and Rostand, I’d be up for something less filling—crisp absurdist chatter, maybe. Perhaps I will be when next it’s proffered. But given the thin gruel with which contemporary playwrights so often nourish audiences, it’s nice to find one who’s not afraid of heartiness. I find I’m not sated at all. CP