The central event around which Tom Murphy's Bailegangaire revolves is the telling of a story. Almost epic in its scope, this story - centering around a laughing contest - never seems to be quite finished, and indeed, theatregoers may find that the Irish Repertory Theatre's production of Bailegangaire, like that story, seems to go on and without end.
And that, perhaps, is Murphy's greatest miscalculation in both his writing and direction of this production. Much of the first act is consumed with the almost droning recitation of this tale by Mommo (Pauline Flanagan) from her bed, appropriately dominating the central playing area. Some lip service is given to the more tangible problems of Mommo's granddaughters, Mary and Dolly (Terry Donnelly and Babo Harrison), but the first act belongs so fully to Mommo that if you can't follow or become engrossed in her story, returning for the second act won't be appealing.
But the second act redeems the problems of the first, changing Bailegangaire from a bewildering, almost intractable play into a convincing and emotional one. One of the problems of the first act is its reliance on Mommo's central story to provide the background music for the more significant story of Mary and Dolly. There's a thick wall of resentment between the two young women, which Murphy builds in the first act so he can work at toppling it in the second. The destruction here is far more interesting than the creation.
But, despite the squabblings between the two granddaughters, it's difficult to get much of a handle on who they are. We know that Mary is a lapsed nurse who is currently taking care of Mommo full-time (though Mommo barely recognizes her) and that Dolly has her hands full dealing with her many children and their absent father. But any aspect of what drives or pushes them is missing. Mary is absolutely determined to have Mommo finish her story for the first time that night, but that issue, like too many others, is dealt with only in the second act.
Because of this, Bailegangaire feels frequently like a one-act play with a fairly arbitrary intermission break. In fact, it might play quite a bit better as a solid two-hour block of time, where the inconsistencies in the writing and the characters would come across more as one complete dramatic entity. Or perhaps a director less intimately involved with the material might have been able to bridge these gaps another way. Murphy's work is generally fine throughout, but the disparity between the two acts is Bailengangaire's most significant problem.
Regardless, the three performers all quite good, with Donnelly and Harrison both making strong impressions when they are each allowed their turn in the forefront during the second act. Flanagan makes a very difficult role (and a massive line load) seem easy, the perfect image of an elderly Irish woman spinning a tale she's told countless times before. The story seems as much a part of Flanagan's blood as it must have been of Mommo's. David Raphel's set and Brian Nason's lights collaborate well at bringing both the story and the story-within-the-story together.
It should be mentioned that the title of the play refers to "the town without laughter" in Mommo's story. Though the play itself is not without humor, it is a mostly serious affair, but one that doesn't earn its stripes as particularly effective drama until later in the evening. But when it does, Bailegangaire, with its messages about family responsibility and unity, becomes very worthwhile and enjoyable indeed, proving that some stories do have happy endings.
Irish Repertory Theatre