Could there possibly be a grimmer one-act play than John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea? The brutal seascape of the Aran Islands provides the backdrop for a story of unrelenting bereavement, as a widow loses her fishermen sons, one by one, to the waves. In this 1904 drama, infused with the poetry of the supernatural, the widow, Maurya, clings resolutely to her faith and triumphantly accepts the inevitability of death.
For its five-play compendium, The Women of Ireland: Short Irish Classics (through April 21), the Irish Heritage Theatre Company pairs Synge’s tale of woe with the more engaging but similarly themed Cathleen Ni Houlihan, by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory.
Inspired by the Irish rebellion of 1798, Cathleen also speaks to the lure of fate, heroism, and the supernatural, in the person of a mystical woman who, through song and eroticism, coaxes young men to their deaths. In this one instance, the eponymous Cathleen intrudes on the happy home of a man preparing to wed his sweetheart the next day. The program notes identify her as Mother Ireland, but the political cast of her seduction becomes clear only near the play’s end.
These two linguistically rich classics are the meat of this hour-long show, co-produced by the Plays & Players Theatre and running through April 21. Three extremely short contemporary plays by female playwrights – drawn from Tiny Plays for Ireland, an initiative by the Irish company Fishamble – function almost as palate cleansers, bracketing the older works.
Hearts by Lucy Montague-Moffat features two aging women debating the heart of a husband amidst the washing. On a bare dark stage, Isolation by Joan Riley depicts the sounds of modern life. In the feminist-inspired Poster Boy by Antonia Hart, the liveliest play of the three, a mother and son joust over the meaning of an advertising image of a woman. All three are directed by Tina Brock.
Tori Mittelman directs Riders to the Sea, using shadow puppetry and masks to underline the play’s otherworldliness and coaxing deep Irish brogues from her excellent cast. For Cathleen Ni Houlihan, director Marcia Ferguson manages the right combination of light and dark, as the alluring Cathleen intrudes on the joys of family, money, and matrimony. (A fourth “tiny” play originally was scheduled, but the company could not obtain the rights.)
Overall, the performances – and accents– are mostly good, especially Mary Pat Walsh’s compelling portrayal of Maurya in Riders to the Sea and Brian McManus’s depiction of Michael Gillane, the young man in torment in Cathleen Ni Houlihan.
What’s missing from the show – and what is needed– is a more substantial and sustained contemporary work, a piece that might have taken up, parodied, or updated the themes of the Synge and Yeats dramas. Without that counterweight, The Women of Ireland, for all its charms, is a less than satisfying outing.
The Women of Ireland: Short Irish Classics
Through April 21 by the Irish Heritage Theatre and Plays & Players Theatre, upstairs at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place. Tickets: $15-$25. Information: 215-751-8495, irishheritagetheatre.org.