The plays of Lady Gregory, Y.B. Yeats and John Millington Synge – all major turn-of-the-century Irish playwrights, leading figures of the Irish Literary Revival and Celtic Twilight, and co-founders of the Abbey Theatre – are not revived very often, even by Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre.
Yeats has received some attention from the Irish Rep over the years in various compilations such as Yeats – The Celebration, The Yeats Project and The Yeats Plays. But as far as I can tell (based on reading through the production history section of the Irish Rep website), the Off-Broadway company has never before produced a play by Gregory (who was described by Bernard Shaw as “the greatest living Irishwoman”). Even more surprising, it has not produced any play by John Millington Synge other than his masterwork The Playboy of the Western World, which remains a staple of dramatic literature classes everywhere. (In 2006, the Druid Theatre Company performed an all-day marathon of Synge plays at Lincoln Center Festival.)
While the headline attraction of the Irish Rep’s spring season is a revival of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer (which was produced on Broadway in 2007) with Matthew Broderick (who recently appeared in McPherson’s Shining City at the Irish Rep), at its small downstairs black-box theater, the company has reunited Gregory, Yeats and Synge in Three Small Irish Masterpieces, a low-key, well-acted and worthwhile 75-minute production consisting of a single one-act play by each author and staged by artistic director Charlotte Moore (with lighting by Michael Gottlieb, scenic design by James Morgan and costume design by Linda Fisher). Backed on guitar and fiddle, the six-member cast also engages in some Irish folk singing.
In The Pot of Broth (written by Yeats in collaboration with Lady Gregory, 1903), a wily tramp (David O’Hara) sneaks into the kitchen of the henpecked John Coneely (Colin Lane) and his miserly and suspicious wife Sibby (Clare O’Malley), who falls for the tramp’s proposed bargain of fresh chicken and wine (which was to serve as the pair’s supper that night) in exchange for a stone that can supposedly turn boiling water into broth. John, far from being angry at the tramp, insists on congratulating him for his wit. It is an insubstantial but charming piece and a fine enough way to lure in the audience.
Gregory’s heartwarming and chummy The Rising of the Moon (1907) involves another confrontation between a respectable fellow (a late middle-aged sergeant, Lane) and a so-called “ragged man” (Adam Petherbridge) who is in actuality a political activist who has escaped from the authorities. The “ragged man” (appearing in disguise) chats with the sergeant (who is on the lookout for him). And once his identity is revealed, the sergeant agrees to let the man escape to safety, forgoing a huge monetary reward for capture. This is certainly the most openly patriotic of the three pieces.
The evening ends with Synge’s tragic and poetic Riders to the Sea (1904), where a mother (Terry Donnelly), joined by her daughters, watches helplessly as the last of her sons suffer maritime-related deaths. It ends with a portrait of group mourning and despair. An especially bleak work, it serves as a rather downbeat finale. But like the other one-acts, it highlights Irish folk culture and identity and leaves one eager for more Irish Literary Revival works. Perhaps the Irish Rep can use this production as a launch pad for more “masterpieces” (be they full length or one-act) from the period.