Theater review: WST's 'Playboy' is a comedy for the ages
With winter reluctant to give way to spring and our country facing such serious problems, you may be more than ready for a comedy that makes you laugh out loud.
And so the Wellesley Summer Theatre's staging of "The Playboy of the Western World" by John Millington Synge couldn't be better timed. Like many comedies, this one is built around characters who jump to conclusions and make mistakes that we as an audience see through long before they do. That's half the fun of it.
But WST takes it a step further, allowing us to see that the play doesn't just poke fun at the gullibility of simple villagers in County Mayo, Ireland, in 1907, when it was written, but by implication it exposes and pokes fun at our own gullibility a century later. And so, this timeless production offers the double richness of making us laugh at others' foibles while also making us think about our own. It's a comedy with a point.
The show opens with a young man, Christy Mahon, seeking refuge in a small, village shebeen, an illegally operated pub. Nora Hussey, founding artistic director of WST and director of the show, brought Lewis D. Wheeler into the company to play the role of Christy. And from the moment that he steps on stage, it's clear that it was a brilliant choice. With great emotional honesty and psychological realism, he immediately establishes Christy as a frightened, lost soul with no idea of where to turn next. This helps us see what a tremendous arc the character travels before the play is over.
It's fascinating to watch him hint at a crime he has committed and then allow the men in the pub to draw the story out of him until he finally announces that 11 days ago he murdered his emotionally abusive father by hitting him over the head with a spade. He's been wandering the roads of Ireland ever since, afraid he'll be caught and hanged.
Much to his surprise, his story captures the villagers' imaginations, and instantly he's viewed as a hero, desired by every young woman. His stock has shot from nowhere to the stratosphere, based on people's illogical whims. Surely, we've seen this kind of phenomenon happen in recent years.
Suddenly, the village is turned upside down. Pegeen Mike, who operates the pub, sees in Christy a potential potboy, protector and a better husband than the one her father has chosen for her. Pegeen's fiance, Shawn Keogh, tries to preserve his upcoming wedding. Widow Quin is determined to have Christy as her husband. And two young, scruffy girls treat him as their playmate.
All of this is very heady stuffy for Christy, who a day ago had nothing and now is being offered the world. (Again, it's not hard to think of contemporary equivalents.) Wheeler is delightful to watch as Christy's head spins with the newfound attention. He's extremely skillful at going through the many shifts that Christy does while rooting him in the emotional reality of the moment at the same time.
At the opening performance, it took a little while for Kelly Galvin to find the voice of Pegeen, but she did, and she shone at playing mind games with Christy to prevent him from being distracted by the other women and at being tough with him when needed. Danny Bolton captures the delightful humor of Shawn's extremely timid nature, but if he pulled back on it a bit, it would feel a little more realistic.
As Widow Quin, Vicky George tends to play a seductive attitude too generically. She's better and more specific when she's firm and angry with Christy.
The role of Pegeen's father, Michael James Flaherty, may be small, but Derek Stone Nelson helps to anchor the show in realism by creating such emotionally true moments. Also in cameo roles, Shelley Bolman as the good-natured but naive Jimmy Farrell and Will Keary as the tough Philly Cullen, who's determined to get to the bottom of Christy's story, add rich color and realism to the show.
Lily Saffer and Ashley Gramolini burst with enthusiasm and charm as the scruffy girls.
Well into the play, John Davin enters as a character who, for the sake of surprise is best not described, turns the town upside down once again. He looks exactly as the scrappy character should and plays him to the hilt.
The play is full of poetic Irish turns-of-phrase that the cast handles well with their Irish accents while bringing out the meaning. Nancy Stevenson's costumes beautifully evoke the period and place with wool coats of muted tones on the men and colorful scarves and shawls on the women. Ken Loewit's set creates the abstract outlines of the pub, while letting the actors bring it to life with their characters.
Five years ago, the Abbey Theatre, the National Theatre of Ireland, brought a production of "Playboy" to Boston, but they got so caught up in theatrical tricks in place of genuine acting that the play felt worn and dated.
Hussey and her company for the most part have captured the emotional life of the play so that it not only overflows with humor, but feels surprisingly contemporary.
"Playboy of the Western World"
Through March 29
Wellesley Summer Theatre, Wellesley College
Tickets: $20, $10 for students and seniors
Info: 781-283-2000, www.wellesleysummertheatre.com