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The Aran Islands

Theatre Review by David Hurst - June 19, 2017

Brendan Conroy
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Long before playwright Martin McDonagh put the spotlight on the Aran Islands in a trilogy of plays: The Cripple of Inishmaan (1996), The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001), and The Banshees of Inisheer (unpublished and unproduced), the islands held a fascination for another Irish playwright, Edmund John Millington Synge (1871-1909). At the urging of his friend and mentor W.B. Yeats, Synge spent five formative summers on the islands (1898-1902) observing their inhabitants and listening to their stories. His journals of that immersive experience would be compiled into a book published to great acclaim in 1907. That book, The Aran Islands, has been adapted into a play courtesy of director Joe O'Byrne and actor Brendan Conroy which is now receiving its American premiere at The Irish Repertory Theatre following productions in Dublin in 2015 and a tour of Ireland in 2016.

The remarkable thing about Synge, who many consider Ireland's greatest playwright, is his literary reputation rests almost entirely on six plays written and produced during the last six years of his life. Untreatable at the time, Hodgkin's disease took Synge's life a few weeks before his 38th birthday at which time his theatrical oeuvre consisted of: two one-acts, In the Shadow of the Glen (1903), and Riders to the Sea (1904); The Well of the Saints (1905); The Playboy of the Western World (1907), considered his masterpiece; The Tinker's Wedding (1908) and Deirdre of the Sorrows (1909), unfinished at his death. Is it any wonder then The Aran Islands has become source material for a seventh play? Despite its very dim lighting and a faint but persistent bleeding through of sound from their mainstage above (in this case, a Woody Guthrie revue), it's a pleasure to report Conroy, a chameleon like actor, is a mostly riveting presence in the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre, the Irish Rep's black box space. Conroy slides in and out of the voices and physical characterizations of the storytellers and their subjects with understated style and panache.

In the first act Synge arrives on the islands, gains the trust of the natives and gets down to the work of listening to their stories. It is a stark contrast to the world of privilege Synge has known from his winters in Paris. The second act focuses on Synge's observations on the island's inhabitants and their life events. Many of these experiences, be it the grieving at a funeral or the coming together of a community to display their loyalty to an individual, would find their way into Synge's plays and are easily recognizable to audiences familiar with those works. Conroy, whose subtle performance feels perfectly pitched to the intimate environs of the space, is aided by the shabby set design of Margaret Nolan and an equally shabby costume courtesy of Marie Tierney. Cleverly, Tierney and Conroy have pulled up the sleeves of his tatty jacket to the elbows so his shirtsleeves gather and bunch around his wrists. When Conroy gnarls up his hands and fingers those shirtsleeves become a prop for him to manipulate and maneuver.

To be sure, a criticism of O'Byrne's adaptation of The Aran Islands, a unique hybrid of memoir and documentary, to a stage monologue would be that it gives the same weight to Synge and the storytellers as it does to their folktales. The former simply aren't as interesting as the latter and even a raconteur as talented as Conroy can't spin that much straw into gold. It's easy to see why directors and actors would be eager to unearth more of Synge's writing but O'Byrne's adaptation of The Aran Islands only really takes flight when Conroy is giving voice to its humorous and haunting tales.

The Aran Islands
Through July 23
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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