Thursday, May 7, 2015

Outside Mullingar at Ensemble

The charm of Irish blarney

     Ensemble Theatre’s production of Outside Mullingar by John Patrick Shanley (Doubt, Moonstruck) takes us back to the glory days of the Playhouse in the Park when Ed Stern ran it and, lo and behold, he directs this with verve and discretion.  It’s a charming play that will be a deserved big hit for Ensemble and a fine way to cap the season.  What makes it
shine is the extraordinary cast.

Dale Hodges and Joneal Joplin*
     Joneal Joplin and Dale Hodges give a master class in taking what could have been stock types (the grumpy father and the gossipy neighbor, respectively) and embodying more fully rounded characters by presenting their inner lives through specific, detailed vocal and physical gesture.  Both have been great on regional stages for decades and they display yet again what talented pros they are.  Acting students could do themselves a favor by experiencing first hand in an evening what they might pick up in a semester of classes.  

Jen Joplin and Brian Isaac Phillips*
     Jen Joplin has the courage to play an emotionally guarded – even withdrawn – woman without ever commenting as a performer.  Instead, she buries herself in the part.  Brian Isaac Phillips shape shifts in this role as a middle-aged man who’s given up his life for his father and may not inherit the farm that’s rightfully his.  Phillips seems to shrink before the eyes of those who’ve seen him in other shows.  There’s a reason for the character’s self-abnegation and it’s startling, but Phillips makes it plausible from his first entrance.  The final scene between Phillips and Jen Joplin works as an epiphany and it’s heartwarming for the audience. 

     One of the characters says that it’s the middle that’s the best thing in life.  In Outside Mullingar, the strongest elements of the script happen to be the first and final scenes.  While beautifully acted and directed, there’s a scene where we first see the two younger characters together that doesn’t really go anywhere.  I guess there wasn’t a dramaturge, director, or artistic director that questioned Shanley about it in the first production.  I wish the scene had either a clearer point or was about five minutes shorter and had been added to the end.  The other issue is that the father is gruff for so long that he seems perverse.  There’s a reason for it, but he refuses to talk about it until the son reveals it much later.  I wish it could have been more than suggested earlier and set up the whimsical, idiosyncratic relationship between the younger characters earlier.  Shanley didn’t wait until the last ten minutes of Moonstruck to set up the relationship between Cher and Nicolas Cage.

     Guest designer Joseph R. Tilford’s interior sets contrast well and look very authentic.  The looming surround walls, though, feel like a deep dungeon as if they were awaiting Man of La Mancha.  I wasn’t sure of the intention when it’s the overcast, exterior pastoral setting to which the characters most fully respond.  Brian c. Mehring does a great job with the lighting (as usual), though I wish the final light cue, which acts as a sight gag, hadn’t been so instantaneous.

Outside Mullingar runs through May 30, 2015.
*Photos from ETC website

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