MADISON, NJ – J. M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” is receiving a rare and welcome production at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, filled with secret pleasures and intriguing, if outlandish, tales to tell.
The play shifts from comedy to drama in the wink of an eye. It’s clear that these inhabitants along the coast of Mayor lead hardscrabble, confined lives. So when a young wanderer appears, saying he killed his father, that’s excitement indeed. Directed by Paul Mullins, this seamless production has well defined characters, most of who connive in one way or another to get their own way.
Michael A. Newcomer is Christopher Mahon, the wild rogue who enters the inn belonging to Michael James Flaherty and his daughter, Pegeen. The entire neighborhood is fascinated as the young girls of the village gather round. He’s soon dubbed ‘the playboy of the western world.’
Pegeen, especially, is taken with him as he is with her. But she already has a fiancé, Shawn Keogh, played with an awkward naiveté by James Russell, who is a marvel of twists and turns with his tall, gangly (almost scarecrow) presence. Izzie Steele is the lovely, red-haired Pegeen who takes no nonsense--until she meets Chris, of course. Her father, played by Matt Sullivan, portrays the typical Irishman, loving his pint and hoping to see his daughter wed the skinny Keogh.
But who captures the stage more than anyone is the timeless Edmond Genest as Old Mahon, Chris’s father. It turns out Chris didn’t quite kill him off after all. When the father shows up with his bandaged head, all the illusions are lost, especially for poor Pegeen.
Emma O’Donnell is Widow Quinn, a sly, salty woman who has eyes on Chris herself. She and the young women in the village descend at once to shower the ‘playboy’ with treats. Megan Sass, Elaine Stenson, Sarah Quigley and Madeline Fendrick are all delightful as they swoop in, flirt with Chris and carry on like he’s a rock star.
This is all set in the inn’s main room, resplendently created with stone walls, fireplace, a bar and the meager odds and ends that make up the inn’s surroundings. Brittany Vasta’s scenic design perfectly captures the rough-hewn atmosphere. Costumes by Candida Nichols are muted and just worn enough to fit the times, especially the garish trousers, jacket and hat that Keogh gives Mahon, in hopes he’ll leave and forget about Pegeen. Musical interludes that open each act enhance the sense that we really are in Ireland in 1907. Michael Giannitti’s lighting brings time and place vividly to life.
The play was roundly derided when first performed in 1907. Audiences couldn’t quite grasp the broad caricatures and risqué dialogue that many considered an affront to Irish respectability.
Although the plot is obscure at times, “The Playboy of the Western World” is well worth viewing. Performances at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, located on the campus of Drew University in Madison, continue through June 23. For tickets, call (973) 408-5600 or visit BoxOffice@ ShakespeareNJ.org.
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