Luck of the Irish

Palm Beach Dramaworks prides itself on presenting theater to think about, but it’s not beyond flirting with a romantic comedy from time to time.

   On stage through April 24, Outside Mullingar is the ideal romcom for Dramaworks because playwright John Patrick Shanley, best known for his hit drama Doubt, imbues the predictable genre with nuance. His tale forgoes ho-hum, eye-rolling cheesiness in favor of a heartwarming story about the frustrations of love in the midst of simple living. 

Alex Wipf and Nick Hetherington in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Outside Mullingar. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

   Outside Mullingar feels thoroughly Irish thanks to expansive grassy pastures, stone cottages, and stormy days. The melodic addition of traditional bagpipes between scenes doesn’t hurt either, and the authentic set design, coupled with lighting that contributes to the mood of each scene, is especially impressive. All of these elements form an ideal backdrop for neighbors Anthony Reilly and Rosemary Muldoon to explore feelings both have kept hidden for decades due to personal hang-ups and offenses committed in childhood.

   Rosemary’s mother, the prim and proper Aoife Muldoon (Patricia Kilgarriff), serves as part-time peacemaker, part-time instigator. She often places herself between the other three more hot-blooded characters—the fieriest of which is her daughter Rosemary.

   Kathy McCafferty seems to be at home in the role of Rosemary Muldoon, the broody young woman who nurses a lifelong infatuation with Anthony. Her heartsick bitterness, prompted by a shove from Anthony at the impressionable age of 6, is the driving force of the story. Rosemary is strong-willed and frequently gives in to her frustrations—if she can’t manage to calm down with a smoke first (a habit Anthony finds abhorrent). When Anthony’s father attempts to oppose her, Rosemary shouts, “Drink your tea, you damn savage, or I swear by the stars I’ll kill you me’self!”

Kathy McCafferty and Patricia Kilgarriff in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Outside Mullingar. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

   Nick Hetherington plays the slightly off-kilter Anthony Reilly, whose “strange ideas” disappoint his father, the cantankerous Tony Reilly (Alex Wipf). Anthony’s eyebrow-raising admission near the conclusion of the play cements his reputation as being one sheep short of a flock and also is Shanley’s way of tying in a bit of local Irish lore. Anthony, still licking his wounds from a romantic rejection inflicted at the age of 16, is oblivious to his neighbor’s feelings for him and spends his dispirited days grumbling around the fields. Hetherington captures the dejection and resignation of a son who has failed to live up to his father’s expectations and find purpose in life.

   Anthony is not the only one whose father played a significant role in his destiny. Shanley did not want to write himself into a box labeled “Irish-American writer,” so he all but rejected his heritage. However, when Shanley’s father grew too old to travel alone, Shanley accompanied him home to the Irish Midlands. During this visit, he came to appreciate the simple life his ancestors enjoyed. Though it took him 20 years to write, Outside Mullingar is the product of that experience, one marked by warm conversations in the family farm kitchen and Shanley’s realization that “There was no way to write about the farm, yet I had to write about it.”

   Outside Mullingar is partly about the incorrigibility of romance and partly about the small but cozy world of those who have never explored another life. Shanley’s ode to his heritage exudes a love for the verdant fields of Ireland and the gruff yet tenderhearted people who inhabit it.

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