Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Distant Music"

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note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Larry Stark

"Distant Music"

by James McLindon
Directed by Jerry Bisantz

Set Design by Ron Dion
Lighting Design by Jon Cipolaro
Sound Design by Alex Savitsky
Set Painting by Robert Bryan
Producers Jerry Bisantz, Ann Garvin
Stage Manager Ann Garvin

Dev Hart........Jonathan Popp
Phil Thompson...Connor Curtin
Sally Nutt........Maeve Moore

Monday, 16 April, 0954 hours
When a show "works" it's as though everything was There from the first reading: the actors insist all was needed was to say the words, the director takes credit for nothing but brilliant casting, the playwright glowingly compliments the company for breathing life into the bare bones of the script, and for once the critics must shut up their niggling way of shredding the experience searching for culprits and heroes and are reduced to saying GO, experience this little thatrical miracle for yourselves. Which I would, except that The Image Theater's doing James McLindon's "Distant Music" in an upstairs room of The Old Court, an Irish pub in Lowell and who th'ell goes to feckin' Lowell 'cept them that's there already? So, on the excellent chance that yer not gonna see this show (not unless they do truck the sets inta town for a run at The Burrin where at least the T'll get ya there) maybe I oughta tell ya much more than ya should know, because on evidence of a sold-out sea of Irish faces opening night, even if ya got there there'd not be a seat unsold when ya did --- and since yer probably not Irish ya might need the help of a review (or a Guinness) to ease ya into the mood. And the last reason I'll keep as me own till the last feckin paragraph. Read on.

James McLindon's "Distant Music" is about being Irish in America --- which is a lie, but true enough to get you started. It's really about being old enough to make serious choices about the shape of the rest of your life, like maybe going back to the village of your birth after ten year in America, like leaving a Church you think may have left you, like leaving the cozily academic criticism of teaching law for an appellate court seat --- like reviewing plays again after retiring. But like all the circumlocutions and asides of conversation in an Irish bar, it's full of explanations, insights, humor, and jokes.

Like the Kerrymen joke. Two Kerrymen go into a bar (Short Version!) in Antarctica and the first asks are there any nuns in Antarctica and he's told "There's not even any women here" and he turns and jeers at his mate "I TOLD ya ya fucked a penguin!" But the point of the story is the joke is shared by the young barman with a delightful woman he's just met --- and he's red-faced shocked a few lines later to be told --- She IS A Nun! It's all that modern forsaking of the habit and involving in the real world and the fact that there's a howlin nor'easter and four feet of snow outside and her in feckin wellingtons that led him on, it did.

But for all the vocation, she's a real woman can't shirk her impulses to bring the solace of her Church to needing people --- like baptizing the newly adopted child of two committed men even though if she does her bishop and her Pope will get her de-cloistered, since she's de-frocked herself already. She's come for advice from her lifelong friend, since college --- the ex-lawyer maybe judge --- because they're old enough to know who they are and what they want and brave enough to reach into fire to get it.

If she does she turns her back on a system she's lived her whole adult life, till it came in conflict with her real self. But if she does she's suddenly aware she just might marry this newly divorced, maybe twice-married no-bullshit lifelong friend teetering himself on the brink of a momentous decision. He's a teacher/critic of the law he believed could improve the world when it was Earl Warren and Thurgood Marshall and not Rehnquist and Scolia calling the plays, but an appeals-court berth might, just might, begin to restore balance in another out-of-whack system.

These two of course are Irish-Americans, born here, but the younger barman who has been talking and arguing and joking for ten years with this customer's always askin fer 'is usual, then changin 'is usual from Guinness to Murphy's and back, as though a stout's a stout no matter the name on the draft-handle. Ten year in America --- with vacation-visits home --- and not yet a citizen, and always expecting to end his days back in the Old Country town he still thinks of as home. Ten year pullin beers in the same Cambridge pub, spreadin his "Are-ish" wisdom over everyone's problems, insisting it's a barman's vocation to eavesdrop, and knowin a lie is as good as a truth, just so's the story's well told. But his uncle has a chance to buy the chip-shop back where he was born and his American savings could clinch the sale, and that would cash in his Green Card visa, make him an Irishman what lived a while in The States. And wasn't that he's been sayin he always wanted, now?

It was Hemingway sang the praises of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" but it's James McLindon's added a lilt and a coupla stouts to the mix and made it sing. ("No, Guinness don't make a Lite Beer!" he sniffs, talkin of the street-trade come in downstairs.) And in moments alone, starin in moody wonder at the flakes whirlin outside, this barkeep does sing a bit --- or better, recites as clean and clear as he can remember from school recitations, Jimmy Joyce's "The Dead" and Molly Bloom's immortal closing soliloquy, to remind us all that Ireland's not just crisps and beer.

Jonathan Popp has a lilting brogue on him sounds as though he was born with, and bounces brightly from needling joke to biting insight. He begins and ends the play, and between makes his bar in Cambridge Mass into a yard of the Old Sod. (If you saw his Dentist in Turtle Lane's "Little Shop" you know the energy he brings to the stage.) But it's Connor Curtin and Maeve Moore that carry the heart and soul of this story, genuinely wrestling with life-decisions that will leave them --- and the audience --- forever different. His hair is white while hers (and the playwright's) is just going grey. And they Live their roles, as only life-experienced actors can. The trio makes Ron Dion's re-creation of an Irish bar into a warm, quiet, friendly space outside a raging storm, in which people can think.

I hope this crew can bring it closer to the center of Boston. "Distant Music" has been produced, but in Tennessee, Vermont, New York, and Colorado. This was its Massachusetts premier, and it has yet to have a production in Cambridge. But if it can move, The Image Theater will do it. They are proud of being "the new image for new plays", proud of producing some thirty-seven or more new plays by local, sometimes by Lowell playwrights --- and they fill their seats with people who live there, and often walk in without reservations. I love them.

But (and this is "the last feckin paragraph" I threatened you with) on a personal note, to do this review I am writing-over the details in a review of "The Batting Cage" at Hovey Players --- a review which, for some reason, I couldn't write. (I am seriously thinking maybe I can't write anymore and should just try to teach.) I don't know if it will last, but "Distant Music" dynamited a writing-block that has lasted since the beginning of March, because I had to make certain its excellence could be recognized. Thank heaven for Beverly's review, but I doubt that enough IRNE reviewers will get to Lowell in time to put all this excellent work into competition, unless The Image Theater can find a place where this "Made In Lowell" show can bloom again.
So, if you love brilliant theater and can get there:

( a k a larry stark)

"Distant Music" (13 - 21 April)
@ The Old Court, 2931 Central Street, LOWELL MA
1 (781)893-9171

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide