The only other major woman playwright to be produced at the Abbey Theater, the National Theater of Ireland, was the elderly Lady Gregory who died in 1932 just as Deevy’s third play went into production. After producing six of her plays from 1930-36, The Abbey rejected Deevy’s future work without explanation and she mostly wrote one-act radio plays, now being published in the United States for the first time under the auspices of the Mint Theater. Like the full-lengths, the four one acts deal with repressive rural Ireland communities in the 1930’s as well as the limited options for women at that time, so that the plays now appear as period pieces.
Exquisitely produced by the Mint Theater, Jonathan Bank’s direction is leisurely and slow, which undercuts the theatricality of all but the last and the most satisfying one, The King of Spain’s Daughter, originally given four separate stage productions at the Abbey from 1935-1939 and two in London in 1939. Using a company of seven, the actors appear in varying combinations while all appear in the third play, Holiday House. Two of the plays end too abruptly calling out for a more substantial length, while one of the plays seems to go on too long.
In Strange Birth, Sara Meade, a spinster maid-of-all-works, in Mrs. Taylor’s rooming house, has sworn off love and marriage based on what she has seen of roomers Mr. Bassett pining for a girl friend who has dropped him and Mrs. Stims, a sour woman who appears to have been abandoned by her spouse. When Bill the postman hands her a letter addressed to the apocryphal “Mrs. Kerwin,” Sara surmises that he is proposing, having been sweet on her a long time. However, she must make a decision whether to follow her own advice or throw over her private objections. While the play builds up to a climax, it fails to follow through and leaves the viewer wanting more.
Ellen Adair is quite charming as Sara, while Aidan Redmond who previously appeared in two of the three Deevy full-lengths is forceful as the postman who has made up his mind as to what he wants. A.J. Shively and Gina Costigan approach the rejected lovers in two entirely different ways. Cynthia Mace is emotional as the landlady pining for her son who has not been home in a long time in harm’s way. As are all of Vicki R. Davis’ settings for the four plays, the rooming house is neatly depicted without a great deal of trappings.
The second play, “In the Cellar of My Friend” (named from a line in a poem called “A Spiritual Canticle”) is another kettle of fish entirely. Although Belle Dobbyn is under the impression that she and her beau Barney Keane have come to an understanding the night before, he has made another decision by morning. To complicate the situation, his strict father (who has brought him up on the death of his mother when Barney was born) has also become smitten with Belle. Both Barney’s decision and the play’s outcome leave one scratching one’s head while the play’s length suggests that more ought to happen. The triangle seems forced and unrealistic. Some intentional comedy about a letter going astray only adds to the feeling that the play needs trimming.
While Sarah Nicole Deaver as Belle speaks volumes silently, Shively as Barney remains entirely enigmatic. As his strict father, Colin Ryan shows no vestige of the martinet he is descried as being. Mace as Barney’s Aunt Patty, her brother’s housekeeper, and Redmond as the gardener are more successful in minor roles.
Holiday House, optioned by the Abbey in 1938 but never performed, is the only comedy of the evening in The Suitcase Under the Bed, and is just short of being a complete success, ending just as it is getting very interesting. Mrs. Mackey and her daughter Hetty have rented a large house for the summer. The problem is that too many of her married children have decided to come for a month: son Derek (formerly engaged to Doris) is arriving with his wife Jil, while his brother Neil recently married to Doris is also coming to spend a month. Hetty expects fireworks when Jil and Doris meet, and Derek seems obviously uncomfortable to be left alone with Doris though he denies it. However, throughout their arrivals, The Mater as she is called “takes it for granted always that people are happy, and that everyone loves seeing everyone else.” But do they?
Witty and wry, the acting of all seven actors suggests greater depth to the play than is on the printed page under Bank’s stylish direction. Deaver’s Hetty is suitably hysterical at the idea of the family reunion, while Ryan’s Derek hides his real feeling on seeing Doris again. Adair strikes a nice balance making Doris both a devious flirt and intensely shrewd. Costigan’s Jil is both sour and jealous, a bad combination in the face of Doris’ pleasant demeanor. As The Mater, Mace sails above it all, assuming that everything is going fine. Redmond’s Neil is stuffy and pompous, an interesting contrast to his brother. Shively as Hetty’s local beau Charlie Moore has some fun mocking Hetty for her fears and worries. Andrea Varga’s period costumes deftly define each of the characters’ personalities and temperaments, while Davis’ setting captures the tension and stress of moving day.
Produced multiple times in both Dublin and Ireland but only now being seen in the U.S., The King of Spain’s Daughter is the most substantial play of the evening. The play is set around 1 PM on a work site with signs saying “No Traffic” and “Road Closed,” hints of things to come. Peter Kinsella’s daughter Annie is late bringing his lunch but he suspects that it is not the wedding below that has kept her from her usual appointment, but her willful temperament. When she arrives, she has Roddy Mann, a local loafer, in tow.
Twenty-four-year-old Jim Harris who works with her father proposes yet again but the romantic Annie imagines herself “The King of Spain’s Daughter” from her reading of Padraic Colum’s poem “A Drover” and has her head full of adventure and old-time derring-do. Unfortunately, none of the local men come up to her estimation for husband material nor does she have any other expectations. When her abusive father tells her she has only two choices, to marry Jim or go work in the local factory for the next five years, she must make an ultimate decision with or without taking into consideration her dreams.
Not only does the play move swiftly, it is chock full of dramatic events as well as symbolism. Annie’s life is hemmed in by roads that are closed, and her fantasies are revealed by her describing the bride’s gown as first red, then green, then gold, when it was none of those colors. The vivacious Deaver makes Annie a fully three dimensional heroine, saucy yet wise. Redmond represents the brutal authoritarian who has power over his unmarried daughter, while Mace as Mrs. Marks, a neighbor passing through, offers Annie wise advice as to what she can expect as a Irish woman living in a provincial town, circa 1935. Ryan captures the seductive nature of the unemployed Roddy, while Shively suggests a much more reliable mate. Varga’s red sweater and pale blue print dress for the romantic Annie and the washed-out looking clothing of the other characters depict the hard lives of these characters.
While The Suitcase Under the Bed brings to the fore an early twentieth century feminist point of view, these short plays intended for the stage, two of which are presented in their extant radio adaptions, are not entirely satisfying. Except for the final one, The King of Spain’s Daughter, the other plays all seemed unfinished and in varying stages of development. While the characters and milieu are authentic, a sort of latter day, updated version of the life depicted in the work of John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey, three of the plays fail to make the intended impression. However, Deevy does appear to have been ahead of her time in addressing social ills in accessible domestic situations.
The Suitcase Under the Bed (extended through September 30, 2017)
Mint Theater Company
The Becket Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-947-8844 or visit http://www.Telechargeoffers.com
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission