The very first word uttered in “Outside Mullingar,” John Patrick Shanley’s great beauty of a play about love and longing, parents and children, and the prickly nature of real estate, is the exclamation, “Jesus,” as it can sound only when spoken with a full-out Irish accent and years of frustration behind it.
You can take the exclamation as an indication that this masterful tale of thwarted possession — whether of hearts, of land or of self — will finally have some resolution. But it is the getting there that drives this 90-minute wonder of a play, a play far more comic than tragic as it spins around what might just be one of the loopiest and most contentious courtships since that of Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing.”
Through April 19
Where: Northlight Theater, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Tickets: $25 – $78
Info: (847) 673-6300;
Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Directed to perfection by BJ Jones, and performed by a sublime cast of four capable of catching all the musicality and playful rhythms of Shanley’s writing, the play is beguiling. Shanley (best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Doubt” and his beloved screenplay for the film “Moonstruck”) has based the story on the lives of his own uncle and cousin, who worked a sheep and cattle farm outside Killucan, Ireland, and experienced the boom-and-bust cycle of that country in recent decades. But clearly he has embroidered it all with his characteristic sense of the stubbornness and whimsy that can mark human behavior, and the result is priceless.
At the play’s center are Anthony Reilly (Mark Montgomery) and Rosemary Muldoon (Kate Fry), who have been neighbors and on-again-off-again friends since childhood. Now that they’re in early middle age, and both unmarried, some spark of unconsummated attraction lurks. But Anthony is still under the thumb of his father, Tony (William J. Norris), and cannot find it in himself to flee from home, even as his dad threatens to disinherit him in favor of an American cousin. At the same time, Rosemary, very much the daughter of her independent-minded, widowed mother, Aoife (Annabel Armour), has reached the point of “now or never,” and she is determined to have her “now.” Complicating matters is a seemingly trivial feud over a piece of entryway land that has been simmering between the two families for years.
Tony, a shy dreamer with a good heart, an innocent soul and a terror of taking action, is not going to make a move. So it is up to Rosemary — an eccentric, lonely, pipe-smoking beauty who has had her share of admirers (and has taken a very modern step toward dealing with her biological clock) to do all the real work. Fry and Montgomery, who have a well-tested stage chemistry, are pure magic here, with Montgomery’s easy masculinity countering his character’s indecisiveness, and Fry’s wonderfully appealing ferocity and innate sexiness at once poignant and hilarious. The scene in which she confronts Tony about her “shape” is pure brilliance in terms of both writing and acting, and Fry grabs hold of it in bravura style. (That scene alone suggests why Fry is unusually reticent about doing interviews; clearly, the only talk required is what she does on stage.)
As for Norris and Armour, they are grand examples of veteran Chicago actors whose impeccable work has only grown richer over time. Norris’ late-life apology to his son is a beauty. And Armour’s resolute views on aging and dying are delivered with winning simplicity.
Kevin Depinet’s lean and poetic farmhouse set (with two cleverly character-defining kitchens) is a fine match for the play, with Andrew Hansen’s sound subtly suggesting the natural world of the farm. But it is the complications of the human animal that concern Shanley. And as he suggests in “Outside Mullingar,” the key to those mysteries cannot be found by observing the basic reproductive processes of barnyard animals.