Off Broadway Reviews
That's actor-dramatist-stage designer Micheál mac Liammóir (1899-1978) describing the inspiration for his play The Mountains Look Different. It was Eugene O'Neill's early masterpiece Anna Christie in particular that got him pondering and writing about just such a situation and then carrying it through to show us at least the beginning of the couple's married life together. (We don't get to see anything further, but enough said here and now on that subject, to avoid spoilers.)
In the Mint Theater Company's current, eminently satisfying production of this obscure but extraordinary work, Brenda Meaney gives a wondrous performance as Bairbre, a lovely young woman who meets and marries a callow young man and goes to live with him on his farm in rural Ireland. Bairbre hopes to permanently renounce her past as a prostitute in Dublin a past of which her spouse is unaware. But the new life she envisions is soon threatened by her father-in-law, who also lives on the farm . . . .
Meaney is perfect for the role in face and figure, and she skillfully makes the arc of the character clear and compelling as Bairbre's self-possession in the early scenes gives way to vulnerability, confusion, and finally, desperation. Jesse Pennington as her husband, Tom Grealish, delivers his dialogue in a clench-jawed fashion that hints at a dammed-up river of repressed emotions. (This approach pays off big-time in the play's final scene.) Con Horgan is spot-on as Tom's dour dad, Martin, whose unexpected awareness of Bairbre's past and his attempt to take advantage of it leads to tragedy. And Paul O'Brien is a vivid presence as Bairbre's uncle, Matthew Conroy, his fairly brief appearance towards the beginning of the action neatly providing some context and exposition of what this young woman has been through.
The play has some flaws of construction. One can understand why the author included five minor characters in addition to the four mentioned above, presumably to give the story a sense of community; but the effect is hindered in that most of these characters don't appear or don't have much to do till Act II, at which point the plot is tightening, and they therefore seem rather distracting. That said, the Mint production gives us perfectly etched characterizations by Cynthia Mace as an old woman neighbor, Liam Forde as her slow-witted grandson, McKenna Quigley Harrington as a local girl, Ciaran Byrne as the parish priest, and Daniel Marconi as the Grealish's serving man.
Vicki R. Davis's set design for the Mint production is notable in its difference from the bulk of the many other shows she has designed for the company. Whereas photo-realism has been the hallmark of most of those designs, here we have something quite a bit more stylized in terms of set painting that calls to mind the film version of Brigadoon, of all things. It's a pretty backdrop for some ugly goings on, and the design is wonderfully utilitarian as well, with the set of the exterior of the Grealish farm house neatly unfolding to display the interior for much of the action. Andrea Varga's costumes and Christian DeAngelis's lighting beautifully complement Davis's excellent work.
"Micheál mac Liammóir" was a colorful figure who set himself forth as a quintessential Irish man of the theater, but who was actually an Englishman born Alfred Willmore a secret that became widely known only after his death. The intriguing info that he spent decades concealing his national origin to assume another persona (and another name) may be thought to resonate with the situation of his creation Bairbre, who tries to forge a new life that she prefers to the one she had been living. Either way, The Mountains Look Different is worthy of this stellar revival, for which heartfelt thanks are due to director Aidan Redmond and the invaluable Mint Theater Company.
The Mountains Look Different