Sure, the Mint Theatre Company’s new production of Micheál Mac Liammóir’s little-known 1948 Irish drama The Mountains Look Different is terrific – even surpassing the Off-Broadway company’s regular standard of excellence. But the bigger question should be whether you’ve ever heard the unbelievable real-life story of Mac Liammóir and/or Alfred Willmore, the writer/actor’s original name.
As chronicled at length in an essay in the show’s program, Liammóir was a Brit who not only took on a new Irish-sounding name but created a whole new self-invented background as a born-and-bred Irishman. He was also an openly gay, highly theatrical, Oscar Wilde-loving individual who (with his professional and life partner, Hilton Edwards) co-founded the Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Liammóir’s true identity was revealed publicly only after his death in 1978. According to the Lucille Lortel Archives, none of his work has been seen Off-Broadway since his one-man show I Must Be Talking to My Friends, which played the Orpheum Theatre in 1967.
In lesser hands, the Mint’s revival of The Mountains Look Different might have made us believe that the play was merely a second-hand homage to Eugene O’Neill (especially Anna Christie and Desire Under the Elms) and perhaps also Tennessee Williams, Yeats, Strindberg and Greek tragedy. And while it might be an imitation to a certain extent, Aiden Redmond’s compelling production makes The Mountains Look Different feel like the real deal.
Set along the Irish countryside, where it may very well be the mid-20th century but feels more like the 18th or 19th century, prodigal son Tom Grealish (Jesse Pennington) has returned to the farm of his hardened, hard-drinking father Martin (Con Horgan) with his new bride Bairbre (Brenda Meaney), who (it is very quickly revealed) is a former prostitute – a fact that seems obvious to virtually everyone other than her innocent new husband. It turns out that Martin himself once spent an evening with Bairbre. As the wildfire festivities of St. John’s Eve occur in the background, Martin (who had previously indicated to Bairbre that she will need to leave ASAP) proposes another solution: In order to purchase his silence, she can have sex with him in the stables. Bairbre, in turn, takes self-defensive actions that ultimately lead to botched results and communal tragedy. All the while, a young serving-man (Daniel Marconi) and girl (McKenna Quigley Harrington) comment upon the characters, and an odd chap named “Batty” (Liam Forde), who apparently possesses supernatural abilities, dances around and plays a handmade flute.
The ending may be inevitable, but the two-hour production draws you in and (except for perhaps a celebratory jig interlude) keeps you glued throughout. Meaney’s Bairbre is a desperate, jittery figure who needs to escape her past and restart her life – as if Blanche DuBois had shown up in the West of Ireland rather than New Orleans. She finds her match (or rather her Stanley Kowalski) in Horgan’s burly, staunch and snarky Martin. Vicki R. Davis’ stylized set design (using broad brush strokes) reveals a three-dimensional mountainside backdrop and a hut façade that is then wheeled around to reveal its interior.