Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Outside Mullingar
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Rod Brogan and Jessica Wortham
Photo by Kevin Berne
Longtime paired relationships and one that was a long time in the making are the heart and soul of John Patrick Shanley's sweet, sentimental, and totally satisfying romantic comedy Outside Mullingar. Nominated for a 2014 Tony Award for Best Play, Outside Mullingar now receives its area premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in a production directed with an Irish twinkle in his eye and a know-how for producing well-timed chuckles and well-deserved sighs by Artistic Director Robert Kelley.

Set in the green, rainy, and isolated farmland an hour west of Dublin and a few miles from the town of Mullingar, the play explores love's ability to persevere in the bleakest of environments muddied by a long-term land feud of next door neighbors, bitter sadness of a long-ago spurned love, a childhood incident of a scraped knee and a hurt ego, and a father who is ready to force his son off their family's farm of several generations.

The Reillys and the Muldoons have long been rural neighbors in this Irish cattle and sheep farming region, and tonight the remaining spouses of the two families, widower Tony and just-widowed Aoife, gather in the Reilly cottage after the day's funeral of Aoife's husband. Tony has already had a confrontation with his forty-two-year-old son Anthony about his intention to not leave the family farm to him but to a nephew in the U.S. because "you don't stand on the land and draw strength from it ... as I did." Now he is trying to convince Aoife to sell back to him a frontage strip of land that separates his property from the lone country road running alongside—a piece he sold to her late husband years before when in desperate need of 200 quid. Tony needs the small strip to firm up a transfer to his nephew. Aoife will have none of it, finally admitting to Tony that her husband actually gave that strip years ago to her now-grown daughter Rosemary.

While they have grown up on adjoining farms and even still live with their parents, Anthony and Rosemary have had little contact or outward relationship since Anthony pushed Rosemary to the ground when they were six—something he has long forgotten, but she never has. Throughout those years, unbeknownst to the highly introverted Anthony, Rosemary has been in love with him, waiting for him to someday notice her even as he still mourns the loss of his one-time village sweetheart Fiona (who now is married with three kids). Rosemary's hope for a future husband is all tied in her mind to their both inheriting their parents' farms and then Anthony's finally putting two and two together—a plan she now discovers Tony is about to thwart with his just-announced, nephew-linked intentions.

Into this mix of family and friend melodrama, Mr. Shanley has slipped an abundance of one-liners as well as lightning-quick retorts that draw waves of laughter from the audience. Old Tony jabs at equally old Aoife about how she looks near death; she claims good looks are still with her; and he jumps in with, "Oh, the fruit still looks good when the worm starts his work." In one exchange between Anthony and Rosemary in which she is telling him not to be a "lump" and stand up to his father for his inherited rights of land, the back-and-forth goes, "I don't like a fight," "Who does?" "Half of Ireland." At another point, he tells her, "People don't appeal to me that much" to which she shoots back, "Who likes people?" The quips and retorts spill forth from all four principals, each delivered in the sarcasm, wryness, or just all-around good humor of the particular speaker's unique, Celtic style.

Steve Brady and Lucinda Hitchcock Cone play the aging, ailing parents and sometimes-friends, Tony and Aoife. Each brings a zest for living even as both contemplate the fast approaching end. Tony's large build and outstretched arms that help accentuate his bombastic declarations come close to overpowering the small cottage. His stubborn nature is evident in a hard-labor-etched, once-muscled exterior now bent and tired. But underneath, an undying love for his son does exist, emerging in one poignant scene as slits of sickened eyes under scrunched, bushy brows suddenly open up to reveal a tapestry of feelings to support his dying words of adoration.

Ms. Cone's Aoife is a ball of energy that betrays her own approaching end of life. She moves about the cottage and adjoining paths enduring evident pain, but she moves with purpose and spark. She voices in her thick dialect, conclusive opinions, even droll-humored ones about her own daughter Rosemary: "She's crazy. The cracked ones never get sick."

Rosemary smokes alone under rain-drenched porch eaves when first confronted by Anthony, who has escaped the two sniping senior citizens to come find her. Each makes meager, stand-offish attempts at conversation, but there is something immediately in Jessica Wortham's portrayal that provides clues that she is not as turned off by Anthony's presence as her words and manners might indicate. She pushes him to stand up to his dad with a vigor and persistence signaling more than just being neighborly. She also is subtle but sure in her look of hurt when he suggests that it is she who should escape the farmland and head off to see the world beyond. The further the story progresses, the better Ms. Wortham is as the increasingly assertive, persuasive, almost pleading Rosemary makes her case for a union with Anthony. The poetry of the script, the playfulness of the director, and the skills of the actor all combine to ensure an award-worthy performance as Rosemary reels in her desired catch.

That catch is an extremely private, lonely roamer of the surrounding hills who describes himself as "long-suffering," "not be understood, not even by me." Although he admittedly does not like farming, Anthony lives for the land and the sky, to be outside of walls and preferably apart from people. Rod Brogan speaks volumes of Anthony's unease in talking to Rosemary or in confronting his dad just by his stiffening hands, his pained expressions, and his suddenly collapsed shoulders in a big, silent sigh. But he is helped by some of the most beautiful, self-revealing lines of John Patrick Shanley's script, such as his admission that "maybe the quiet around a thing is as important as the thing itself." Secrets he hides deep within have too-long defined his choices in regard to Rosemary. When those finally fly out, the back-and-forth dance before that inevitable first kiss we have all known was coming since the beginning of the play is a gem among many in the evening.

Besides his inspired direction of the actors in the one hour, forty minute play, Robert Kelley has also once again assembled a creative team second to none. Andrea Bechert has created two meticulously detailed cottage interiors and one exterior porch scene amidst a barren, forlorn landscape and under a sky mostly dark and full of billowing rain clouds. The rain drizzles and pounds all around us, thanks to the excellent sound design of Cliff Caruthers. Steven B. Mannshardt paints Ms. Bechert's landscape and sky with lighting that is mysterious and threatening, beautiful and uplifting, musical and romantic. What he also does to illumine ever so slightly the rain-drenched path that Rosemary and her mother take at one point, including a halo peaking out of an umbrella they share, is pure artistic genius. Finally, kudos must go also to B. Modern for costumes that ring true of the Irish countryside, of the cold and damp, and of the practicality of a cattle and sheep farming community.

What else but magic would one expect from the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning and Tony Best Play Doubt or of the multiple Oscar-winning movie Moonstruck? By turning his newest play over to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and to Robert Kelley, John Patrick Shanley has ensured that this latest production of Outside Mullingar meets and probably exceeds his Bay Area fans' expectations for an evening steeped in laughter and tears, intrigue and romance, the lyrical and the homespun.

Outside Mullingar continues through October 30, 2016, in production by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.