Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

And Neither Have I Wings to Fly
Shapeshifters Theatre

Julia Beck, Elizabeth Ellis and Emily Robinson
Based on recent seasons, the concept of a Chicago Irish theater company might seem a bit redundant. In the past 18 months, we've seen productions of plays by Conor McPherson at Steppenwolf and by Martin McDonagh at Northlight, where Hugh Leonard's A Life just closed. Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape was produced months ago at the Goodman and his Endgame is now at Steppenwolf. Of course, the city with a vibrant theater community and a large, historically significant Irish community could be expected to be a virtual year-round festival of Irish drama. Still, it's not surprising to learn that the Irish-American Community Center on the northwest side is home to two Irish theater companies. One of them, Shapeshifters Theatre, is presenting a very solid production of And Neither Have I Wings to Fly, written by Chicago native Ann Noble and first produced here in 1995, when the playwright was just 24 years old and a recent graduate of Northwestern University. It was, in fact, the first production of the Seanachaí Theatre Company, the other resident company of the Irish-American Community Center.

Though Ms. Noble is American, this play is very much in the tradition of Irish drama. It concerns a family, a death, spirits returning, trips to the pub and a settling of old scores. Eveline and Kathleen Donnelly, two young adult sisters of rural Ireland in the 1950s, have just returned home from the funeral of their mother, who recently passed away after an illness of three years. Eveline (Julia Beck), the responsible sister, did most of the mother's caretaking during her illness. Kathleen (Emily Robinson) is the fun-loving one. Kathleen is engaged to Leo Doyle (Ross Patrick Frawley), a kind but dull man she doesn't love. Then Freddy Malone (Erik Clancy), a handsome but shallow actor with whom Kathleen had an affair during a visit to Dublin, comes to their town to perform. Kathleen is attracted to the possibility of a last fling with Freddy. The action occurs over the week leading up to Kathleen and Leo's wedding. The Saturday of that wedding becomes a deadline for life-changing decisions for each sister: Kathleen must decide whether or not to marry Leo while Eveline must decide if she'll accept a scholarship to attend university in Dublin. Complicating matters is Eveline's growing romance with Charlie (Mike S. Cherry), Leo's rough and tumble brother who has returned home to stand up at the wedding. Fortunately, Eveline has help and counseling in her choice from the ghost of her mother Moira (Elizabeth Ellis). She doesn't get much of either from her Da, the grieving and hard-drinking but responsible Peter Donnelly (Patrick Carton).

Director Robert Ayers's non-Equity cast has confidence and a sure sense of their characters. As the schlubby Leo, Frawley touchingly communicates the man's essential sadness and insecurity knowing that the pretty Kathleen is probably just settling for him as a husband because of the limited supply of bachelors in their little town. As the father Peter, Carton is perfect in the sort of patriarchal role usually given to the likes of Brian Dennehy or John Mahoney. He's multi-layered—tough yet grieving, having a strained relationship with the disappointing, irresponsible Kathleen, grateful to Eveline and loyal to his future son-in-law. It's a shame the role isn't bigger and that we don't get to see more of Carton. Cherry's Charlie is a runty but tough prodigal son. He's been away for a while, mostly getting into trouble. His attraction to Eveline sparks some changes in his attitude and Cherry makes us believe this guy could change—just a little—for the better. As the actor Freddy, Erik Clancy is appropriately all surface-level charm. Freddy seems more genuine doing a speech from Hamlet for the family than he does in normal interactions.

Eveline is really the heart of soul and the play, the character who makes the greatest journey and who is most conflicted. Ms. Beck finds Eveline's center—her super-responsible nature as de facto head of a family whose now-deceased matriarch was bedridden for years and whose patriarch mostly withdrew out of his inability to accept his wife's failing health. It's a tricky role to play. We also have to see Eveline's desire for something more than caretaking for her family—the love of learning and literature that sparked her to apply for a college scholarship. She has to make us believe in the ghost of her mother and navigate the changes from fantasy to reality. She also must smoothly transition between Eveline's sudden mood swings as she reacts to the changing situation around her and tries to maintain control. Ms. Beck, a recent grad of Northwestern University's theater program, is a talented actress but doesn't entirely manage all these nuances as well as the part demands.

As the less responsible sister Kathleen, Emily Robinson shows the pent-up energy of her character but doesn't show enough of her subtext. Kathleen's temptation to leave her fiancé and probably her family is a huge crisis, and we need to see more of that underlying tension. Kathleen seems to succumb to Freddy's charms a bit too easily. As the mother returned to help Eveline, Ms. Ellis and director Ayres seem not to have decided how worldly or unworldly to make the ghostly mom. The text seems to suggest a mostly earthly tone that we don't get here.

The set, by April Pilarski, uses apparently authentic household furniture and a few flats. It's enough to take us to 1950s rural Ireland. Anna Glowacki's costumes seemed not quite of the '50s, but believable garb for small-town Irish folk.

Though the Northwest Side is not a neighborhood one immediately associates with live theater, don't let the location keep you away. This is on par with any of the better non-Equity companies in town. Plus, the Irish-American Community Center offers free, up-front parking and on Friday and Saturday nights a working Irish pub (The Fifth Province) with a tasty menu of pub food for convenient pre-theater dining. There's entertainment in the pub after the play as well if you want to make a night of it. You'd have to continue a few more miles out to O'Hare and get on an Aer Lingus flight to the Emerald Isle to have a more enjoyable evening of immersion into Irish culture.

And Neither Have I Wings to Fly will be performed through Sunday, May 9, 2010, at the Irish-American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox, Chicago. For tickets, e-mail the company at or call (773) 282-7035.

Photos Patrick Carton

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-- John Olson

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