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Doing right by forgotten ‘Mountains’

July 1, 2019

By

Jesse Pennington and Brenda Meaney.  PHOTOS BY TODD CERVERIS

 

By Joseph Goodrich

The Mint Theater Company’s motto is:  “Lost plays found here.” Specializing in unjustly ignored or forgotten works, the Mint has brought renewed attention to such writers as Dawn Powell, Miles Malleson, and Rose Franken. Waterford’s own Teresa Deevy, long neglected in Ireland, has been championed in recent seasons with four separate productions. The Mint returns to Ireland with Micheál Mac Liammóir’s “The Mountains Look Different,” first produced at the Gate Theatre in 1948. (This production continues through July 13 at Theatre Row).

Actor-manager Mac Liammóir is a fascinating figure. Born Alfred Willemore in London at the very end of the 19th century, he was a theatre person born and bred; as a boy actor he’d been part of “a star cast of wonder children” in a play called “The Goldfish,” which also featured the young Gertrude Lawrence and a self-possessed juvenile named Noel Coward.

Captivated with Ireland and its culture, Mac Liammóir learned the Irish language and changed his name. (The fact that his London family was not of Irish Catholic extraction in Cork, as he’d claimed, was only discovered after his death in 1978.) With director Hilton Edwards, his lifelong partner and collaborator, he founded the Gate Theatre and, in the process, changed the Emerald Isle’s theatrical history. The Gate, as the Mint’s website declares, introduced “Dublin theatergoers to important works by European and American dramatists, as well as new plays by Irish dramatists.” The multi-talented Mac Liammóir was one of those playwrights, and “The Mountains Look Different” is a potent if imperfect play.

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Paul O’Brien and Con Horgan.

 

The set-up is easily summarized. Tom Grealish returns to rural Ireland from London, where he met and married Bairbre, a young Irish woman. Shortly after Tom’s father meets the bride, he is determined to drive her away; he recognizes her as a prostitute he spent the night with on a brief trip to London years before. Will Bairbre stay or will she go? The clash between the two is the heart of the play.

Aidan Redmond’s direction is subtle and sensitive; a fine actor himself, he’s guided his cast through the rushing rapids of Mac Liammóir’s language and found the proper balance between the mythic and the domestic. Brenda Meaney plays Bairbre with great fire. Bairbre’s fighting for her life – and knows it. She’ll do anything to stay out of the cesspool of the Big Smoke – almost anything, as we learn in the course of the play. Con Horgan is a brooding brute of a fella as the father. Sadistic, domineering, suspicious, he is unlovely and unloved. It’s easy to see why his children sought their fortunes elsewhere, and why he remains “a widow man” years after his wife’s death.

Ciaran Byrne, Liam Forde and Cynthia Mace.

 

Paul O’Brien as Matthew Conroy, Bairbre’s uncle, is a warm and supportive figure, the opposite of old man Grealish. Ciaran Byrne brings a light comic touch to the role of a drunken policeman and a sour piousness to that of the local priest. Vicki R. Davis’s ingenious set gives us a storybook version of a farmhouse – an idyllic dream of life in the country – and its dark interior.

Redmond and company have done right by Mac Liammóir’s rural tragedy. “Mountains” has its share of clichés and would have benefited from some trimming. But Mac Liammóir’s sense of theater and the talent assembled by the Mint carry us through the rough patches. Brenda Meaney is particularly memorable as a young woman desperately seeking a different – and better – way of life. Her Bairbre is a vivid creation, by turns passionate and tender, fierce and frightened. She is an actor of great capability and range.  The Mint has found a gem of a performer in Meaney

Joseph Goodrich’s most recent book is “People in a Magazine.”

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