When Irish eyes are smiling

'Outside Mullingar' is a rewarding rom-com

In the 1997 film "The Devil's Own," Brad Pitt's character, an IRA operative running guns from New York to Dublin, issues this warning: "Don't look for a happy ending. It's not an American story. It's an Irish one."

This axiom -- that there are no happy endings in Irish stories -- is reinforced by a casual look at the Irish plays that have found success on Broadway in recent decades: works by Conor McPherson, Brian Friel, and Martin McDonagh, among others, in which the characters' lives are so overshadowed by the Troubles and/or centuries of systemic poverty that any unambiguously upbeat ending to their stories would be impossible.

All bets are off, though, with "Outside Mullingar," John Patrick Shanley's tale of Irish farmers, now offered by TheatreWorks. Set in a peaceful and fleetingly prosperous contemporary Ireland, "Mullingar" is a quirky, character-driven pastorale that offers at least the plausible hope of a happy resolution.

This is not to say that Shanley's script is lacking in a requisite sense of Celtic melancholy. Quite the opposite. The action begins on a rainy evening, immediately following the burial of Chris Muldoon, a lifelong farmer whose relentless battle with the local crows has finally reached its end. Muldoon's widow Aoife and daughter Rosemary have been invited for a drink by the neighbors: curmudgeonly Tony Reilly and his middle-aged son Anthony.

The early scenes are filled with gallows humor, meditations on death, long-held grudges, and a debate about the inheritance of the Reilly farmstead that suggests we are in store for a wee Irish riff on "King Lear." But then something odd happens. The thrust of Shanley's tale shifts, and suddenly we are watching a will-they-or-won't-they romantic comedy featuring 40-something Anthony and nearly-40 Rosemary both still single and both clinging to secrets that may scuttle their romance before it gets off the ground.

Rod Brogan (Anthony) and Jessica Wortham (Rosemary) bring this fraught interpersonal dynamic to life with panache and endearing humor. In addition, Brogan handles the play's most poetic language canticles to damp grass and speculations on the hierarchy of being without sounding pompous or sappy, and Wortham's slowly ratcheting desperation in the final scene is a masterful exercise in sublimation and dramatic timing. (Bonus points to Wortham for the best mimed puddle-jumping you're likely to see on any stage.)

Steve Brady (Tony) and Lucinda Hitchcock Cone (Aoife) are similarly adept performers. Hitchcock Cone finds the perfect tone of wry resignation for the widow Muldoon, and Brady shepherds the elder Reilly through a transformation that is crucial to the shape and themes of the show.

TheatreWorks' founding artistic director Robert Kelley is at the helm for this production, and he and his artistic team have done an excellent job bringing Shanley's not-so-dire vision of Ireland to the stage. Lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt and sound designer Cliff Caruthers start us off with a rainstorm that wraps the Reilly farmhouse in a post-funereal gloom. As rendered by scenic designer Andrea Bechert, the Reilly home is packed to the ceiling with old furniture and whatnots, including an ancient icebox and cast iron stove, and trimmed with oppressively dark woodwork. A cloudy skyscape looms above and behind.

Once the tone of the play shifts, the action moves to Rosemary's kitchen, which Bechert has painted white and yellow, furnished with slightly less ancient appliances, and decorated with a few carefully chosen items that indicate a simple but by no means barren life. It is in this kitchen that Rosemary and Anthony are finally able to speak their long-held and frankly quite absurd secrets, and here that the hope and humor of Shanley's story burst into full bloom.

It may be worth noting that Shanley is not actually an Irish playwright. Though of Irish-American descent, as the surname suggests, he was born and raised in New York. His play "Doubt: a parable" (produced by TheatreWorks in 2008) won a Pulitzer, and his screenplay for "Moonstruck" earned him an Academy Award. "Outside Mullingar" grew out of time that Shanley spent, as an adult, on his cousin's cattle farm in the Irish Midlands. It seems that this time also gave Shanley a good ear for the rhythms and idioms of the Irish dialect; his writing has all the lilt and wistful poetry that you would expect of Irish drama.

Unfortunately, the Irish accents in TheatreWorks' production are not as uniformly convincing. Brogan's brogue, in particular, sounds less than organic. The accent waxes and wanes, especially in the play's early scenes, and seems to consist primarily of a few Irish diphthongs welded on top of line readings that miss the cadences of a typical Irish dialect. The other actors fare better. Wortham, Brady, and Hitchcock Cone deliver believable accents, though there is more variation between them than you might expect from characters who have lived their entire lives in the same insular farming community.

The opening night performance also had a few minor pacing problems: from ungainly pauses that suggested actors searching for lines, to important transitions that felt arbitrarily rushed. But, as we have come to expect from Kelley and TheatreWorks, the flaws are small and the rewards are great. "Mullingar" is well worth the visit.

Freelance writer Kevin Kirby can be emailed at penlyon@peak.org.

What: "Outside Mullingar"

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: Through Oct. 30, Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays at 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m., Thursdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.

Cost: $19-$80.

Info: Go to TheatreWorks or call 650-463-1960.

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