Inspired by the myth of Hercules and Antaeus (a giant with superhuman strength thought to be unbeatable until Hercules figures out that his power comes from touching the earth), the Pearl Theatre Company's production of The Playboy of the Western World capitalizes on the bloated features, magic, and apparently, aphrodisiacal aspect of myths. The result? A rollicking good time that veils, even thinly so, the meaty and bold discussion about peasant life, patricide and purity that Irish playwright John Millington Synge set out to have in 1907.
On a day that seems to begin just like any other, the citizens of County Mayo in Ireland are thrown into a tizzy when Christy Mahon (Sean McNall), a vagrant claiming to have recently slain his father, darkens Pegeen's (Lee Stark) bar door. Ironically and, um, comically, rather than admonish him and turn him into the local police, the predominantly Catholic townspeople applaud his “bravery” and set him on a pedestal for his courage. Huh? Even the sharp and no-nonsense Pegeen, betrothed to the cowardly and wealthy Shawn (Ryan G. Metzger), swoons to the tune of Mahon's chest-thumping. But that's not the only instance of brawn.
Harry Feiner's scenic design, beautiful in its purposefully unpolished state, appears to be half of a tavern torn by a giant like...Antaeus. Planks of broken off wood jut out at us, unfinished but completely amazing. The set seems to parallel what Mahon says happened to his dad's head after he struck it. One almost forgets that the Pearl is at a new location for the season because the company has retained the thoughtful décor at the New York City Center that always enlivened its shows on St. Mark's Place. Fortunately, the exciting performers also transferred over.
As the Widow Quin, Rachel Botchan is wily, but artfully so because of her playfulness. Grey-haired but not bereft of youthful fancy, her honesty with herself and her willingness to accept dishonesty is a nice contrast to Pegeen's non-negotiable grip on the truth. Further distinctions occur in their Irish accents. While Quin's is light and intelligible, Stark's, though an audible treat, is heavy and sometimes hard to understand. Yet, both inflections are as they should be. Like their respective accents, Quin's heart is clear while Pegeen's is not always so.
Is The Playboy of the Western World a satire about the mundaneness of rural living? Maybe. Does it question the notion of immorality? Perhaps. But the Pearl's rendition of it is so superbly acted by the stellar cast and so sharply directed by J.R. Sullivan that you may be far too entertained to concern yourself with the issues. Though the issues are important and necessary, this production, like many myths, is mostly about how captivating the narrator can be. In that role, The Pearl inspires some swooning of its own.
The Playboy of the Western World