Shanley’s Irish tale a richly rewarding experience

John Busbee: The Culture Buzz 2/14/16

Upon entering the Kum & Go Theater, one senses a very special theatrical experience is about the unfold. A powerful sense of place emanates from the scenic design crafted between the two sides of audience seating. An intimate, almost voyeuristic audience placement produces a palpable anticipation as the pre-show sound track enhances the visual mood created by Tim Wisgerhof’s brilliant scenic elements.

Just when Greater Des Moines audiences thought they’d viewed all of the design facets that Wisgerhof’s creative gemstone offers, yet another dimension of this artist reveals itself. To this designer, a black box theater space is his ultimate theatrical canvas, and he is a Rembrandt. His design process begins during any project’s first production meeting, infusing a special connectivity to what the director, the cast and the rest of the production team bring to a show. Outside Mullingar is an exquisite example of distilling the residences and pivotal plot of land into a condensed, surreal and very richly detailed diorama of an Irish countryside and two neighboring farms. Director Todd Buchacker’s talented cast brings this setting to vibrant life through one of the most engaging and rewarding theater performances of its kind.

Any production benefits from a strong script, and John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar is a gem. His mastery of dialogue in this story is bolstered by a captivating story, which embraces all the solemnity and humor of rural Ireland. The isolation of a desolate landscape and the two farm families with adjoining land guides the viewer to greater appreciate the challenges any unmarried farmer has when it comes to creating relationship while remaining true to her or his primary calling, the land to which they are bonded. Shanley’s quartet of characters in this no-intermission, 90-minute production includes a father, his son, and, in the family adjacent to their farm, a mother and her daughter. Central to the story is a small patch of land, an easement, which forces the Reilly’s to use a pair of bothersome gates for entrance and egress. Owners of this disputed patch of land are the Muldoons, specifically daughter Rosemary. Father Anthony Reilly’s father sold the land Each of these characters displays in various degrees, in various ways, at various times a cultural stubbornness that may have a soft exterior, yet an anchored core, much like a moss covered boulder. Shanley’s relationship development with these four is delicious performing arts, especially as delivered by Buchacker’s talented ensemble.

As the Reilly patriarch Tony, Joe Smith cloaks himself with a curmudgeonly, set-in-his-ways inflexibility, yet with a begrudging charm. His passive aggressive feud with neighbor and Muldoon matriarch Aoife exudes of the decades of familiarity and close proximity of the two families, and Donna Scarfe brings all the manipulative power of a grieving widow to their scenes. Their interactions are honest yet coached in a longtime habit of providing partial glimpses into the true intent of many bits and pieces of information and feelings. Their physical language coupled with unspoken intent make great dialogue, with a bluntness as unmistakable as the oppressive Irish weather.

The true inner force in this show lies within the relationship between son Anthony Reilly (Jonathan deLima) and daughter Rosemary Muldoon (Kerry Skram). Hints abound during the early parts of this play, providing many retrospective “ah-ha” markers for the inevitability of what happens with Anthony and Rosemary. These two share a special rapport, carrying the audience into a sublime, richly textured world. deLima hides his secrets, releasing them with a conjurer’s deft skill. Skram has never been better – and, that says much, considering her tremendous body of work – as her mood and tact shift like the arc of the Irish weather talked about in this show, from gloom to thunderstorm to brilliant sunshine. Together, these two alternate in their emotional fencing contest. And, slowly, steadily, they draw the audience into their worlds, with a delectable, rewarding pay-off.

Other elements of this production warranting praise – actually, the entire production team deserves praise for their contributions. Specifically, Jim Trenberth’s experienced touch with his well-conceived lighting design, Kelly Marie Schaefer’s costuming and Josh Jepson’s sound design deserve a special tip o’ the cap, and Drake University graduate Jasen Emamian did a fine job in bringing a uniformity to the challenge of an Irish dialect.

Outside Mullingar has a veteran cast, respectfully bringing Shanley’s dialogue to its richest peak, guided by a director who understands the playwright’s story, delivered on one of the most exquisitely evocative set designs seen in some time. In short, this is a show that beckons to any and all theatre patrons, and will beguile anyone who experiences it.