Theatre Mirror Reviews - "On Raftery’s Hill"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


by Marina Carr

directed by Eric Engel

Sorrel Raftery … Emily Knapp
Ded Raftery … Shawn Sturnick
Dinah Raftery … Melinda Lopez
Shalome Raftery … Carmel O’Reilly
Red Raftery … John Haag
Isaac Dunn … John Morgan
Dara Mood … Ciaran Crawford

‘Tis always a joy to hear a play from a new writer with a voice, where you sit up and actually listen to each line of his or her dialogue, savoring the words as sounds as well as tools of communication; the words keep the play afloat, even if its ship (i.e., the plot) goes down or a production doesn’t quite do it justice. Here, the playwright is Marina Carr; the play, ON RAFTERY’S HILL, in a New England premiere by the Súgán Theatre Company --- the ship does go down at the end; the production (as directed) doesn’t quite do it justice --- but the words stay afloat and it is, by and large, well acted. Though the program defines Ms. Carr as the leading Irish female playwright of her generation, she is still new to our ears: the Súgán introduced her to America with its production of PORTIA COUGHLAN (which I missed); its production of ON RAFTERY’S HILL is only the second one in this country thus far. If you want to hear good stage dialogue in this electronic age --- meaty, earthy dialogue that sings --- you’ll find it aplenty ON RAFTERY’S HILL.

A subtitle to Ms. Carr’s play could well be “Decline and Fall of the Rafterys”, three generations of Irish farmers living on the hill that bears their name. Red Raftery, the aging patriarch, drinks, hunts, tyrannizes his family and has let the farm go to ruin --- his acres are littered with animals that he butchers and then leaves to rot. His old mother, Shalome, is lost in her past of India and Kinnygar and makes repeated attempts to run back to ‘Daddy’. Two of Red’s children are destined to play out their lives on the Hill: Ded, the half-wit son who lives in the cowshed and plays his dead mother’s violin; and Dinah, approaching forty, who runs the household and has long harbored a dark secret within her breast. Sorrel, the younger daughter, plans her own escape by marrying a neighboring farmer, Dara Mood. At the play’s end, Sorrel chooses to remain on the Hill, having learned what it means to be a Raftery --- and here the ship goes down: you would think Sorrel would defy the gods and high-tail it out of there, no matter what; the ending as written is a little too pat, a little too Greek tragedy, to ring true.

Twice I have attended Súgán productions --- the first being Gary Mitchell’s TRUST two years ago --- and twice I came away feeling both directors were too respectful of these horror comedies --- their “How Awful It Is” thus swamping the tough, bristling weirdness that makes Irish humor so unique; but, then, what one culture finds hilarious another culture often does not. (Think of poor Chekhov: “I wrote COMEDIES, damn it!” he continues to cry from the grave.) In RAFTERY’S case, director Eric Engel has washed and polished Ms. Carr’s trash --- “trash” in the sense that Ms. Carr has written a lurid, down-and-dirty entertainment. On the night I attended, the audience carefully chuckled throughout RAFTERY --- carefully, mind you, as if Great or Profound Art had been set out before them; if the script, intact, had been transplanted to rural Mississippi and “Carson McCullers” or “Flannery O’Connor” had replaced Ms. Carr’s name in the programme, no doubt the audience would have loosened up, laughed heartily and enjoyed this black homage/parody of the old Southern Gothic school (a world, to quote Leslie Fiedler, where “grandpa [is] eaten by the hogs, while brother is seducing sister in the splashing swill”). ON RAFTERY’S HILL smells of dirt, dung and rotting carcasses; the Súgán production is far too clean: Susan Zeeman Rogers’ kitchen set boasts a floor of fresh, blond planks, so spotless that brother Ded could eat directly off them if he so chooses; when the blood of two shot hares stains them, you know something ominous will soon erupt (sure enough, it does) --- even the back landscape with those carcasses resembles pretty, abstract art.

The tone of the production is uneven --- Comedy, here; Tragedy, there; the two genres never mix, let alone collide (Mr. Engel also failed to unite Acts One and Two of last year’s LISBON TRAVIATA over at the Lyric). The character Dinah suffers the most from Mr. Engel’s heavy handedness: Dinah is a survivor; a combination of alcohol, family pride and the dark secret that defines her very existence has kept her on the Hill; Dinah grumbles and squabbles but stays and puts up with her lot. Her constant exasperation with her dysfunctional family is most comical: she must keep in line a father with whom she bickers like a wife (in a sense, she is), a brother who insists on being fed like an animal, a frisky kid sister who is now feeling her oats, and a dotty grandmother who always slips off the moment her back is turned. Here, Mr. Engel has directed Melinda Lopez to be fragile, beaten (emotionally); a thwarted Fury --- her Act Two anger not only rends the fabric but is hypocritical: Dinah doesn’t lift a finger to avert the tragedy of Act One; in the end, she accepts it as life on Raftery’s Hill. In addition to Mr. Engel’s interpretation of Dinah, Ms. Lopez neither looks nor sounds Irish, but I have seen this talented actress several times in the past and know she will triumph again in the future.

And whose play is this, anyway? At curtain call, six of the actors are onstage when the lights come up; allowing John Haag, who plays Red, to come on alone for the final bow. Is Red the main character, then? If so, then Ms. Carr is partly at fault: Red doesn’t appear until halfway through Act One, and then he must share the stage with Isaac Dunn, a hunting sidekick. The tragedy of Act One suddenly comes out of nowhere, and Red disappears for long stretches of Act Two, nor do his actions have any repercussions on him. A director would have to orchestrate the four other Rafterys in such a way that the audience senses the Star has yet to appear (Red is talked about before his first entrance, in old-fashioned build-up), and an actor of commanding force and personality must conquer the stage as Red and fill every corner of it; that country kitchen should vibrate with his presence whether he is onstage or off. Instead, Mr. Engel has directed Ms. Carr’s characters as a series of turns; the actors may be singing from the same page, but they’re all singing the same melody line; no counterpoints or harmonies. If this was a production of O’Neill’s A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, John Haag would be the Phil Hogan of one’s dreams --- he captures the dirtiness, the lustiness, the shanty-ness of the Hogan character eerily well (he could alternate Hogan with Jeeter Lester from TOBACCO ROAD). Though Mr. Haag is not diminutive in stature, his Red comes off as a small geezer, a Gloucester more than a Lear. That shanty-ness --- along with Ms. Rogers’ crumbling walls --- led me to believe that the Rafterys are poor squatters; I was quite surprised to learn in Act Two that they are really affluent, well-known members of the gentry (justifying Dinah’s and, later on, Sorrell’s pride).

Emily Knapp is nicely effective as Sorrell, full of the sap of Life in Act One and then turning to stone for Act Two; she is also convincingly dressed for a country lass: hair parted on the side, a sack dress and sensible shoes. John Morgan, an authentic Irish actor, plays down the role of Isaac (to avoid stereotyping?) and thus loses much of the blarney in his two scenes with Red; Ciaran Crawford has little to do but glower as Dara Mood.

In terms of theatre, the two Grotesques comes off the best, and Mr. Engel has wisely kept them both off to the side of the main action --- Ded, on stage left; Shalome, on stage right --- the audience at least will know they are not the main characters. Carmel O’Reilly is a beautiful, beautiful Shalome, all cobwebs and dreams (if she needs a signature tune, it would be Offenbach’s Barcarolle, played on a harp) --- her final image, appearing in Sorrell’s wedding dress, now torn and muddy, defines Tragicomic (“How funny; how sad;” you will murmur). I have seen Shawn Sturnick onstage often enough to say that here is an actor who must be carefully cast and directed to reap the full effect of his talent: onstage, Mr. Sturnick has a still, radiant purity about him that can be fine-tuned to suggest either the angelic (as was his Edgar in New Rep’s KING LEAR) or not-so-angelic (the incestuous brother in Coyote’s THE HOUSE OF YES). (If Mr. Sturnick were to break into movies, he would be cast as baby-faced killers; on television, he would be the next blood-sucking alien on the Fox channel). Here, his Ded is more scarecrow than man, his clothing soiled but not his gentle, tormented soul, his mother’s violin and bow clutched in fingers that barely protrude from the sleeves of his moth-eaten sweater; his matted hair framing two blue eyes as deep and as vacant as the sky. Mr. Sturnick has been playing supporting variations of Prince Myshkin for some time now --- won’t somebody let him take center stage for once as Myshkin himself in SUBJECT TO FITS, Robert Montgomery’s long-forgotten spin on the Dostoyevsky novel?

I hope and trust that the Súgán will introduce America to more of Ms. Carr’s work --- her words are too good to go unheard over here. And may her future directors also know how to spot a sow’s ear when they see one and not to try turning it to silk.

"On Raftery’s Hill" (28 March-19 April)
539 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 426-2787

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide