By Alix Cohen
Women fail to write strong plays because they lack the “inexhaustible fund of information about life which is the common property of men.” Brander Matthews, A Book about the Theater, 1916.
Ha. One wonders what Matthews made of the work of Teresa Deevy, in the early 1930s one of the most prolific and successful female writers of her generation. Deaf from illness since her early twenties, Deevy, an accomplished lip-reader, maintained a colloquial ear which brings both accessibility and credibility to her work. From 1930-1936, The Abby Theater in Dublin produced six of her plays, but then changed management and inexplicably started rejecting them. Deevy went on to write for radio, never regaining lost ground. Radio, think about that.
Wife of James Whelan was way ahead of its time. It speaks to the dynamics of attraction, loyalty, love, loss and pride through a man and the three women in his life. Not only is the story unusual for its unexpected turns, but the perceptions of human behavior mark a distinctive change from the drama of the day with only the structure seeming a bit dated even now.
James and his love, Nan, are young enough to live on longings, expect everything, and dance around the truth. When he’s offered work elsewhere, James jumps at the opportunity to further himself, promising to return. Nan almost petulantly opts to settle her life where and when she can be sure of it. Certainty is illusive. Kate is James’s best friend and confidante. “Did I show myself there in a foolish light?” he asks only her. Her love is unrequited. Nora, who is from a different class, meets James much later and sets her sights on him.
It sounds like a fairly straightforward story with predictable second and third acts. But it’s not. These are complex characters ruled by emotions or practicalities that cause dramatically unanticipated behavior. Herein lies the play.
This is a really strong cast. All laudable; a pleasure to watch and hear. Aidan Redmond (the laconic Tom Carey) and Jon Fletcher (the sweet, bumbling Apollo Moran) deserve call outs for particularly fine performances.
Shawn Fagan (James Whelan) plays naively, brashly charming as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. His energy and confidence at the first could power a small town. As James increasingly acts in direct opposition to his true feelings, Fagan manages to project self-conflict (sometimes agonizingly) without words. He’s better with charm than anger.
Rosie Benton (Kate Moran) is terrific; genuinely compelling and moving. We see a whole person onstage. Kate’s self-effacing integrity, gentle good humor, and infinite devotion are fully realized. Liv Rooth does a nice job in a role written as cliché. She reminds us to look beyond her advantages to a vulnerability.
Janie Brookshire (Nan Bowers) was, to me, the weak link. Since Nan is both less well written than her fellows and also less expressive—reserved from the start, beaten down at the finish. I admit to not knowing whether my impression was a reaction to acting, directing, or writing. I wanted Nan to seem more defined and, frankly thus, more desirable.
Direction, by Jonathan Bank, is pitch perfect. Each player has his or her own distinct physicality; gestures seem generated of necessity not instruction. Casting this piece, Bank successfully used both his sense of aesthetics and his judgment as a director. Communication is visible in silence—watch the eyes. The restraint of the characters is palpable. The small business deft.
Vicki Davis’s set is all stone, brick, and wood textures. It effectively evokes a feeling of solidity and of the earth, like the seemingly simple lives portrayed. “Does the sun shine warmer on the rich man’s skin?” asks a villager. Set and language straight from the hip.
Martha Hally’s costumes are beautifully detailed and just worn enough in appearance. Amy Stoller’s Dialect Direction is well served.
As he has done for so many other works over the course of fifteen years, Jonathan Bank, Artistic Director of The Mint, rescued this play (and, arguably, its author) from near obscurity. A window has been opened on not only a time, place, and social cast, but the views and somewhat sentimental sensibilities of one of the few women dramatists of her time. This is not meant to relegate the piece solely to historical or academic interest—it’s an intriguing and entertaining evening of theater offered in a superior production. One wishes Bank a long, productive life. His service to the art is as unique as it is passionate.
Wife To James Whelan by Teresa Deevy
Directed by Jonathan Bank
The Mint Theater
311 West 43 Street- Suite 307
Photos, from top:
1. Tom Carey (Aidan Redmond), James Whelan (Shawn Fagan), Kate Moran (Rosie Benton), Jon Fletcher (Apollo Moran), Nan Bowers (Janie Brookshire) and Nora Keane (Liv Rooth)
2. Tom Carey (Aidan Redmond) and Nan Bowers (Janie Brookshire)
3. James Whelan (Shawn Fagan) and Kate Moran (Rosie Benton)
4. James Whelan (Shawn Fagan) and Nora Keane (Liv Rooth)