In ‘Outside Mullingar,’ love comes to those who wait

Michael Morain, Des Moines Register-Theatre Review, February 15, 2016

On a drizzly night in “Outside Mullingar,” at the Des Moines Social Club, a shy farmer named Tony Reilly wanders outside with a metal detector to search for something he lost in his neighbor’s yard.

He doesn’t find it — at least, not with the gizmo — but the item turns up later, after a few twists, in a way that suits the play itself. Good things come to those who wait.

Written by John Patrick Shanley and produced by StageWest, through Sunday, this quiet Irish love story falls more in line with Shanley’s quirky screenplay for “Moonstruck” (1987) than his Pulitzer-winning “Doubt” (2005), which ratchets up its dramatic tension with calibrated precision. The newer play, directed here by the steady hand of Todd Buchacker, seems to roam hither and yon until Tony’s cows come home.

But be patient. All of Shanley’s loose ends tie into a tidy Celtic knot in the final scene. And even though the outcome isn’t a total surprise, the charming roundabout way the characters get there belongs in the realm of O. Henry.

As the story begins, Tony (Jonathan deLima) and his widowed dad (the excellent, impish Joe Smith) live out in the Irish boonies, near Mullingar, just across the road from an old woman named Aoife Muldoon (the charming Donna Scarfe), who just lost her husband. She heads over to the Reilly place to chat after the funeral, but her headstrong daughter Rosemary (Kerry Skram) keeps to herself.

Their gentle banter fills the space like fog, and if it weren’t for their singsong accents — which all four actors pull off — they could just as well be Iowan as Irish, somewhere “outside Marshalltown” or “outside Muscatine” (although designer Tim Wisgerhof’s two cut-away cottages do add a nice Old World touch).

The neighbors swap stories about the folks from church, about the weather, about that time when Tony and Rosemary were just kids and he pushed her down on the grass. She still holds it against him.

Scenes pass and with them, the old-timers, leaving middle-aged Tony and Rosemary to fend for themselves, each slogging away on either side of the road. It’s clear they’re fond of each other, but for some reason they’ve just never gotten together. She wonders whether he’s gay or depressed or impotent — who knows? — but when the stranger truth finally emerges, it doesn’t even matter.

It’s here, near the end, when Skram’s feisty Rosemary and deLima’s wobegone Tony really shine, when they suddenly realize: 1) how many years they’ve wasted alone, and 2) how they just might make most of the time that remains. The actors magnify the bittersweet moment in a way that seemed, to me, more realistic than when I saw Debra Messing and Brian O’Byrne take on the same roles on Broadway in 2014.

Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say the story ends on a happy note. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but there are enough nuggets to reward the wait.