Wife to James Whelan
By Teresa Deevy; Directed by Jonathan Bank
BOTTOM LINE: An admirable and fascinating trip into a forgotten byway of Irish theatre.
The world moves forward like a relentless and blunt machine, and we can either stand to the side and let it pass or bravely stand in its way…and get buried underneath.
This bleak moral quandary forms the steely backbone of Teresa Deevy’s otherwise very soft and airy play, written in the 1930s and newly unearthed by the Mint’s intrepid Artistic Director Jonathan Bank. Whether you agree or disagree with their idea, their play (and the natural and enjoyable performances of the cast) bears some attention and consideration.
I must confess that I find it difficult to emotionally invest in stories from England and Ireland of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So many build their plots around the iron dictates of understood social codes and classes. Living as I do in the 21st century, I get irked by Jane Austen’s empire of commoners and lords that can’t ever kiss, no matter how in love they might be. Wife to James Whelan is built on a similar quaint idea, that one’s word is an unbreakable bond for all time.
James Whelan, rising star of the village of Kilbeggan, is leaving his home for a new job and dreams of business success. It is a given truth that he will succeed. His first love, the village lass Nan Bowers, as steely and determined to remain in her village and make the most of the small hand dealt her, resents his unbridled ambition to change, and his desire to leave her, even if it is to better their future together. He vows that he will leave, she vows to wed another, and the die is cast. When he returns seven years later as an unqualified success, she comes to him looking for work to support the child left from her quickly dead husband.
But that just gets us to the beginning of Act II, and from there, nobody ever really changes their mind about anything. He can’t marry her – she’s beneath him now – and she doesn’t seem to question that idea, she just wants the work to feed her son. Throw in the acquiescence of Nan’s brash sister Kate, who deeply loves Whelan but acts as his devoted friend and confidante rather than lover, and we have a stand off that hinges on the idea that nobody can ever challenge the accepted rules.
Well, we’re American, and that kind of long-suffering is not really in our DNA, so it rings a bit hollow for me.
But that’s really editorial comment, and should not distract us from the excellent theatrical work being presented on stage. If you love the classic three-act form, the pleasure of good language (Deevy did have a gift for the natural phrase that communicates much meaning), and the quiet workings of a strong cast, Wife to James Whelan is a lovely, cultured evening out.
As Whelan, Shawn Fagan gives us a thoroughly charming businessman, all bluster and big heart, and we never question the faith in him given by the rest of the characters. Janie Brookshire is accomplished both as the fiery young girl and the quietly strong mother. Rosie Benton is very good as the saucy Kate (though I think she is too young and pretty for the part), and there is fine, elegant work by the rest of the cast (special kudos to Aidan Redmond as the village philosopher for his poise and calm in voicing many of the playwright's inner thoughts).
In Act I director Bank bounces his actors a bit too much around Vickie R. Davis’s spare set (a model of efficiency, offering up the actors on a silver platter in the intimate venue), but settles into some clear stage pictures in the latter two acts. All in all, the play could not have been better served.
Ironically, the play suffers at the hands of relentless forward motion in the same way that Deevy's characters did. In the 1930s and 1940s, Deevy established herself as a writer with one certified smash hit (Katie Roche
) and six plays produced at the Abbey Theatre, then as now Ireland’s defacto National Theatre. After an abrupt management change at the Abbey and the defection of some of the leading actors who had championed her there, she suddenly found herself on the outside looking in, through no fault of her own. After the death of her caretaking sister (Deevy had gone deaf some years earlier), she retired to her families’ home in Waterford, and was never a produced playwright again.
For 15 years, Bank has made it his mission at the Mint to find plays that, for one reason or another, landed under the tireless steamroller of time, and dust them off in sterling and well-acted modern productions. From the creative work of well-known critics and theorists like Harley Granville-Barker to forgotten plays of more well-known writers such as D.H. Lawrence and J.M. Barrie, he has carved out an intriguing niche as a curator and caretaker of the theatre history we have forgotten.
So the Mint and Teresa Deevy are a perfect combination; a lost but surprisingly modern playwriting voice, with a lot to teach contemporary authors about the art of dialogue, and a theatre dedicated to excavating lost plays. Bank understands this, and is staking the next two seasons of his theatre on an in-depth investigation of her work. We can all look forward to getting to know her better.
(Wife to James Whelan
plays at the Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd Floor, through September 26th. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $55 or $25 for those under 30. Visit minttheatre.org
or call 212.315.0231. Running time is approximately 2 hours 20 minutes with two intermissions.)