In the late 1890's, William Butler Yeats gave a bit of famous advice to the young playwright John Millington Synge. "Give up Paris," Yeats said. "You will never create anything by reading Racine... Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression."
Many writers have yearned to capture the elusive poetry of peasant life, but few have ever succeeded as well as Synge, who did indeed give up Paris and travel in 1898 to live among the poor in the Aran Islands. There he found the subject matter that would become his life's work and culminate in one of Western drama's greatest classics, Playboy of the Western World.
But before the masterful Playboy , Synge wrote two one-act plays, Riders to the Sea and In the Shadow of the Glen, which are currently enjoying a successful revival at the Chain Lightning Theatre.
The two plays complement each other with the simple poignancy of tragedy and comedy. Riders to the Sea is the story of a mother unable to stop her last living son from going out to sea, where her six other sons and her husband were killed. In the Shadow of the Glen involves the comic premise of a husband who pretends to be dead in order to catch his much younger wife flirting with the passersby.
The darkness depicted in Riders to the Sea is constructed so concisely that some scholars describe the play as the only one-act in dramatic history to achieve tragedy in its fullest sense. In the current production, Tony Torn's directorial choices mirrored the honesty and simple pathos at the core of both stories. Torn trusted the plays, and avoided the temptation to "modernize" them. Instead, he worked to penetrate their essence and allow that essence to work on us.
Performing Synge must surely rank with Shaw and Shakespeare as among an actor's greatest challenges. The peasant speech is an Anglo-Irish based on Gaelic structure; it's been said that Synge would pretend to be going to bed and then hold his ear to the floorboards above the kitchen to listen to the authentic speech possible only when his "stranger's presence" was removed.
The Chain Lightning actors tackled the arcane language admirably. Jill Larson, as the grieving mother, displayed a convincing grief with an understated stillness in her body that was both eerie and poignant. The furtive, fearful glances of Danae and Angelica Torn (sisters in real life, and in the show) capture their characters' helplessness. Strong supporting performances were also given by Conn Horgan as the brave, doomed son, and Cheryl Horne, Rebecca Ingalls, Kathy Kelleher, Kirsten Krueger, Lisa Reff, Jon Leon Torn, and Tim Williams as the townspeople, who accompanied an impromptu wake with some haunting Irish music sung acappella..
Occasionally the concentration required by Synge's language gave the performances a stiff quality, particularly during the lighter moments of In the Shadow of the Glen. But Angelica Torn bounced smoothly from mood to mood in her role as the coquettish Nora. Kricker James, Frank Nastasi, and Tim Williams might have all made broader choices to heighten the story's comic, slapstick moments, but they captured the mood of the piece nonetheless and worked well together as an ensemble.
Tom Glisson's simple, realistic sets for both plays
deftly expressed the rugged dignity and never-ending difficulties
of impoverished people battling the elements. Also contributing
to the authenticity of the mood were appropriately ragged costumes
designed by Meganne George and Scott Clyve's
soft lighting. The hardship in these characters' lives was further
deepened by sound designer Randy Morrison's choice of Irish
ballads, which -- like Synge's poetry itself -- expressed the
sad beauty of simple pathos. As Maurya, the grieving mother in
"Riders to the Sea," says near the play's conclusion:
"They're all gone now, and there isn't anything more the
sea can do to me."