Rural Irish Folks Look For Happiness in the Sweet, Captivating 'Outside Mullingar'

Have you ever wondered if you could fall in love with your next door neighbor? Okay, not that one, but the other one. No, not that one either, the one a couple doors down. Ever wonder?

 Well, that happens to two characters in Outside Mullingar, a sweet and evocative script by John Patrick Shanley which is given a superior production by the folks at Clague Playhouse. In this four-person piece, two older folks from two separate families in Ireland dominate the first scenes to a fare-thee-well. But then their progeny take over. And while the kids are not spring chickens themselves, their struggle to recognize their attraction for each other is completely captivating.

 Shanley won the Pulitzer and Tony in 2005 for his play Doubt, and an Oscar for Moonstruck, knows his way around dialogue. And he has constructed a play bristling with witty one-liners and intriguing family dynamics. The cast under the wise direction of Anne McEvoy hits all the notes, although there are a couple wrinkles.

 The elderly Tony Reilly, a curmudgeon of the first water, is thinking about selling his farm to a relative in America who may be looking to settle on the Emerald Isle. Tony's middle-age son Anthony has invited next-door neighbor Aoife Muldoon over for tea, since she's just got done burying her husband.

 As Tony and Aoife trade pointed barbs, as all Irish people apparently do, Anthony frets because he can't garner any respect from his dad. Moreover, it appears the farm is not going to be willed to him, since Tony claims his son "... doesn't draw strength from it as I do."

 While Anthony is battling his daddy issues, we learn that Aoife's daughter Rosemary has harbored a long-standing grudge against Anthony for pushing her down on the ground when they were both in grade school. To prove her hate, she long ago bought a strip of land that provides access to the nearby road, an access that would make the Reilly's farm more valuable and salable. Anyhow, she spends most of her time smoking outside in a shed and "mopping and moping."

 These characters stake out four corners of a boxing ring and they go at it pretty well, as Shanley puts words both acidic and poetic in their mouths. Aoife complains that she was put on earth "just to bury and be buried," as Tony comments on the lackluster qualities of his son. And just when you think this play will pivot on the strong personalities of Tony and Aoife, the chronology leaps ahead and everything changes.

 The production benefits from compelling performances across the board. As Tony, the esteemed actor and scenic designer Ron Newell returns to the stage after a 16-year absence. Happily, it's as if he never left at all. His timing is devastatingly perfect, and when he finally sets himself to speak honestly with his grown son about his feeling and the future, there is hardly a dry eye in the house.

 Rose Leininger in the role of Aoife matches him step for step, trading snappy patter and even singing a bit. She evokes every inch of a woman in this place, and you almost wish she and Newell could have their own show to explore their relationship further.

 But playwright Shanley has other ideas in mind, and after the middle of this 90-minute one-act, we focus our attention on Anthony and Rosemary. Each in their 40s, they have lived fairly isolated lives in the reflected glare from their high-wattage parents, and now they are forced by dint of their close residential proximity to talk to each other now and then.

 Anthony is a bit of a schlub, bald and a tad hefty, and he doesn't really know how to talk to a woman. Chris D'Amico offers a fine, controlled portrayal of a man who always did what he was supposed to do, but never stopped to figure out what he actually wanted to do. And in the later scenes, he is challenged to do that by Rosemary, played with a fluctuating intensity that seems a bit too casual at times by Cat R. Kenney.

 But in the final scene, when she finally confesses she had always been confused by his lack of interest in her, she half-jokingly asks if he's a hermaphrodite or gay. He says no, but admits he's a virgin. Then, the sparks begin to fly, and the sentiment that is released feels fully earned by these two very relatable characters.

 It is a handsome production, thanks to the detailed set design, also by Newell. But one wishes that the actors could just maintain their flow and not be interrupted by some extended scene changes. The script is good enough, and the actors are accomplished enough, to carry this story with a minimum of scenic support.

 That said, it's refreshing to see a play where genuine people are just trying to get through life, and find a little joy along the way. And if you're looking for a bit of joy yourself, look no further than Outside Mullingar.