The plays of J. M. Synge have remained part of the collegiate and community repertoire, but to have two on the professional boards in Boston at the same time is an unexpected blessing. First to open is Sugan Theatre's "The Well of Saints", the first of the author's works to be staged at the famed Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Next week, the Abbey itself tours into town with their 100 anniversary production of the much more famous "Playboy of the Western World". This romantic comedy started a riot when it premiered in Dublin a century ago. "The Well of Saints" was first seen in this country here in Boston in 1911. Sugan is known and has been honored for producing plays from the contemporary Celtic repertoire. Including Synge in this year's season is both honoring the roots of contemporary Irish drama and pointing out the timeless relevance of such classics. Perhaps O'Casey and even Yeats will be next.
Sugan's award-winning artistic director, Carmel O'Reilly has taken her usual no-nonsense approach to this bleak fable. She's cast two strong Sugan regulars in key roles, award-winner and Dubliner Billy Meleady and Limerick-born Derry Woodhouse as Martin O'Doul, the blind beggar and his friend Timmy the Smith. Meleady finds a rhythm which makes O'Doul's rant against the world compelling, but Woodhouse hasn't found a core for his character and comes across rather unfeeling.Establishing more physical presence earlier in the show might help.. On the distaff side, peripetatic Beth Gotha's Mary O'Doul is a match for Meleady in both the highs and lows of the play. They make a believable pair of squabbling beggars. Therese Plaehn as Molly Byrne, Timmy's somewhat casual fiance, seems however too modern and a bit urban. John Morgan's dialect coaching has made sure that everyone sounds countrified and consistent, but attitude is a lot harder to adjust.
As the force behind the action, the miraculous cure of the O'Doul's blindness, Michael DellOrto makes a striking Saint, believably ascetic. The rest of the cast of local folk following him about to witness miracles are less convincing. No one's out of character, but none seem really of this place. Part of the problem is the place itself. Harvard's J. Michael Griggs, who's produced some striking sets for past Sugan efforts has created a very formal and severe arena for this show. There's little sense of the outdoors, of the roads the two main characters have tramped for decades. The large doors upstage which lead into the ruined church at the crossroads for Acts 1 & III, and open to suggest Tommy's forge for Act II, have an interesting abstract painted on them, but become mere background too soon. The planked runways on either side which serve as entrances, with steps down into the tanbark covered central playing area frame this cockpit, but don't add much to the sense of location. The stage remains too much a stage. Karen Perlow's lighting produces some atmospheric effects, but these can't achieve much on so severe a set. Molly Trainer's costumes for the O'Doul's are believably ragged and unique, but much of the rest of the cast seems to be dressed up rather than of a period and milieu.
As a way of pointing up Synge's place at the root of contemporary Irish drama starting with Beckett, the strategies behind this production are interesting, but ultimately limiting. With the exception of Meleady's almost demonic character, the show is too subdued and seems something of an exercise. There's a tentative quality to the play's poetic language. Perhaps the cast will settle into the work and open up during the run. "The Well of Saints" isn't done that often and like much of Synge's work has unexpected challenges. This production, which plays the three acts straight through without intermission, offers a chance to see a fair presentation of this script, and perhaps compare it to "The Playboy of the Western World" here for a limited run up the street at the Wilbur. For the rest of their season, Sugan will move next door to the new Roberts Studio, presenting two contemporary scripts; Tom Murphy's "The Sanctuary Lamp" in February and Gregory Burke's "Gagarin Way" in April.
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