Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Well of The Saints"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Norm Gross

"The Well of the Saints"

Reviewed by Norm Gross

At the Boston Center for the Arts is the Sugan Theatre Company's new production of "The Well of the Saints" by John Millington Synge. By a remarkable coincidence it's being presented in Boston at the same time that Ireland's famous Abbey Theatre is also performing Synge's other great masterpiece "The Playboy of the Western World." While the latter, with its controversially sardonic view of rural Irish life resulted in a near riot at the time of its Dublin premiere in 1907, no such tumult greeted this earlier, lyrically poetic and very rarely performed gem at its Abbey Theatre debut two years before in 1905.

Set in a rugged and remote area in Eastern Ireland, its provocative plot takes the form of a mystical parable. Martin and Mary Doul, long married beggars, blind since birth and unable therefore to have ever seen each other, have always subsisted on the community's beneficence. These same villagers have also always taken great sport in making fools of these two lowly ragamuffins by convincing each of them that their mate is either handsome or quite beautiful.

Since their neighbors also insist that they must accept some sort of gainful employment, Martin now works for Timmy, the Village's self-righteous and demanding Blacksmith. The miserable wretch full well knows that Timmy and his fiancee Molly most certainly do treat him regularly with condescension and contempt.

One day soon thereafter,the community's routine, with its simplistic lack of change, is overturned by the arrival of a saintly traveler. He carries with him a flask of Holy Water, drawn from the play's far off, titled well. He then convinces Martin and Mary that just a few dropslets of this sacred fluid in each of their clouded eyes will bring back their lost sight.

Unfortunately, when these mystical sprinkles actually do restore their vision, both Martin and Mary are appalled and furious at what they really look like, and what they now know to be the malicious deceptions of the villagers. While not one or the other is terribly ugly, neither are they comely, attractive, or even well proportioned, as expected.

When the effects of the saintly sojourner's divine water suddenly evaporates and the impoverished couple's blindness returns, they resoundingly refuse his offer of a second, stronger and absolutely permanent recovery of their eyesight. Outraged by their rejection, he bitterly denounces and condemns them both.

Sensitively directed by Carmel O'Reily, Billy Meleady and Beth Gotha stirringly portray Martin and Mary, with stern support from Michael Dell'Orto as the mystic, as well as Derry Woodhouse and Theresa Plaehn, both reasonably effective as Timmy and Molly.

Unfortunately, as with the aforementioned Abbey Theatre's offering, this performance likewise has the cast speaking in hard-to-follow thick Irish brogues replete with very minimally understandable regional slang. Explanatory program notes (which were unavailable) would most certainly have been quite helpful.

Regrettably also, J. Michael griggs' undistinguished and apparently hastily considered lackluster, paint-streaked setting was a surprising disappointment in this otherwise provocative presentation of Synge's critical exploration of the hope that Religion inspires and the contradictions that it may similarly generate.

My Grade (0-5): 3.8

"The Well of the Saints" (29 October-20 November)
Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 933-8600

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide