The Mint Theater Company’s latest rediscovery, the American premiere of famed actor/producer Micheál mac Liammóir’s 1948 The Mountains Look Different, is a strange affair. The author is best known to Americans today as Iago in Orson Welles’ 1952 film version of Othello and as the co-founder of Dublin’s legendary Gate Theater
A mash-up of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie (set in Manhattan and off the coasts of Provincetown and Boston) and Desire under the Elms (with a rural New England setting), the play is set on a farm in the West of Ireland. With its fallen woman theme, this play could have been written any time since 1880. First time director Aidan Redmond has staged the play by the numbers and has given his actors little help. Some of the character interpretations undercut the play. However, the play does have a melodramatic but smashing and startling ending.
The inspiration for this play was mac Liammóir’s pondering what happened after Anna Christie married Mat Burke: did they live happily ever after or did they encounter unexpected problems? If you know O’Neill’s second Pulitzer Prize winner, you are aware that its heroine is a reformed prostitute. In mac Liammóir’s drama, Bairbre Conroy has returned to Roman Catholic Ireland after 13 years in London where she has been a street walker. However, meeting Irishman Tom Grealish, a pure and sensitive soul, in London, she has fallen in love with him, and not revealing her past has married him three days before and returned to his father’s farm, hoping to start a new life buried in the country. One plot point that is never explained is that the couple has not consummated their relationship as of yet.
Unfortunately, her father-in-law, the stern and severe widower Martin Grealish, recognizes her as a woman he spent the night with in London nine years before and regretted his sin ever since. Meeting her first without his son around, he orders her to leave the next morning or he will reveal to Tom what he knows. When Bairbre pleads with him that the she has changed and wants a new life, he offers her a proposition which leads to tragedy for all concerned.
Much of the writing is stereotyped and clichéd dealing in stock Irish characters. Locals come and go with little or no reason. The play might be more successful if played to the hilt by the company of nine, but the acting here is one-dimensional. Redmond’s direction has the actors cross the stage for no reason than to make them look busy.
As Bairbre, the new Mrs. Grealish, Brenda Meaney is too beautiful to believe that she has been a streetwalker for 12 years. She should have had no trouble getting a job as a model or an actress. Jesse Pennington, who was a fine Dr. Atrov in Uncle Vanya at Hunter College last fall, seems fatally miscast as the naïve new husband Tom. Firstly, he is too short for Bairbre, who would probably not have looked twice at him. While the script describes him as “a broad-shouldered young man fleshy and muscular at once with the suggestion of great physical strength,” none of this is in evidence with Pennington’s awkward, slouchy walk which makes him seem cowed even by his father. His Irish accent is so thick than he is difficult to understand, but that is not true of Con Horgan who plays his father. While he is appropriately steely and grim, his performance gives no clue why he is this way.
Several of the other characters are made use of so little by the storyline that their presences are rather pointless. As Bairbre’s uncle, the miller Matthew Conroy, Paul O’Brien’s appearance in the first scene (and his only one) is simply to let us know that that Bairbre and Tom have been married and are on the way to the farm. Cynthia Mace as Máire, an old woman neighbor, appears to visit the Grealishes simply to look after her grandson, the simpleminded Batty (Liam Forde).
In a rather simplistic performance, Daniel Marconi as Bartley, Grealish’s man-of-all- work, takes an instant dislike to Bairbre which is not explained except that it might be a lame attempt at foreshadowing. McKenna Quigley Harrington as his girl Brídín appears only to represent what Bairbre may have been like before she left for London. Ciaran Byrne as both a priest and a policeman is entirely negligible as the author has hardly given him anything to say or do other than state platitudes.
Andrea Varga’s costumes are so generic that it is difficult to know when the play takes place. The stylized setting of the farm house and yard by Vicki R. Davis looks like nothing so much as a musical comedy set for a show set in the country. Christian DeAngelis is more successful with the lighting which does point up the mountains in the title. Apparently, the title is supposed to indicate that the rural community looks different to Bairbre after her decade and half in the big city, but the language of the play is not poetic enough to make any point of this. However, this is a truism hardly needing stating.
The Mountains Look Different (through July 14, 2019)
Mint Theater Company
Theater Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-947-8844 or visit http://www.minttheater.org
Running time: two hours and five minutes including one intermission