The Mountains Look Different, written by Micheál mac Liammóir, presented by the Mint Theater Company is a profound tour de force whose plot arcs swiftly toward climactic catastrophe. Directed by Aidan Redmond, the play takes place in the beauteous, desolate, wilds of Connemara, Republic of Ireland on St. John’s Eve. On this portentous night, the townsfolk gather to celebrate by lighting bonfires, dancing, singing, drinking and praying for good luck, prosperity and a fruitful life for the coming year. As the events unfold, it becomes apparent that mac Liammóir’s selection of the setting is deeply, thematically ironic.
Into the bucolic, rustic, traditionally Catholic, isolated, agrarian village, where time is entrenched in ancient folkways, and modernization hasn’t yet approached (there is no electricity, running water, modern accoutrements or trending social conventions) Tom Grealish (Jesse Pennington) brings his new bride Bairbre (Brenda Meaney) from London, to introduce her to his father, Martin Grealish and the neighbors. Returning from the fast-paced, cruelly indifferent, big city, the couple seeks the rest and solitude of the farm. They hope that father Martin (Con Horgan) will welcome them for more than a short stay. Indeed, the newlyweds intend to live and make a home with Martin, contributing their efforts to add to the farm’s prosperity.
Prior to the couple’s entrance, Matthew Conroy, Bairbre’s uncle (Paul O’Brien’s fine performance is not submerged by a top-heavy accent) visits Martin, introduces himself and attempts to lay the foundation for a happy union between the families. He spreads good will and extends generosity toward Martin Grealish. A miller, Uncle Conroy promises that Bairbre will inherit his estate after he’s gone as he has no children or other heirs. To reveal his love and concern for Bairbre, Conroy brings her a wedding present which he asks Martin to give to her and encourages Martin to be “good” to her.
Martin is abrupt, surly and inhospitable. To Conroy he bitterly grouses about the “lack of dowry” upon the marriage. However, when Conroy discusses the promised gift of some money, presently, and the future inheritance landing on Bairbre and Tom, Martin transforms from darkness to light.
With this striking movement in Martin’s characterization, playwright mac Liammóir foreshadows the true nature of the father as a dark, hypocritical and selfish individual. From his gruff, irascible demeanor and grasping manner, we infer that the elder Grealish has little grace, empathy or affability to bestow upon in-laws. When Tom refers to his father’s churlish nature and abusive upbringing during his reunion conversation with Martin in which he boasts that he has achieved status as a solid, married man, Martin derides him. It is as if he hates his own son and finds him a disgusting failure, not that the father has much to commend him as a human being. In prizing money and wealth above love, humanity and forgiveness (this is apparent as the plot unfolds), we understand the “type” of Christianity Martin professes is the type that destroys.
Alone on the farm with only the manservant Bartley to help, it is clear that the aging, declining and reclusive, Martin has most probably driven off his other seven children (to the religious life and America). Perhaps he has driven his wife to an earlier death which ironically might be a more pleasant experience than living with Martin. There are no pictures of her; there is only a prominent picture of Jesus and those involved in the Easter rising of 1916. Indeed, Martin could use the assistance of his son and his bride, and like the story of the Prodigal Son in the scripture, he should be thrilled upon Tom’s return. He should put any grievances and negative attitudes he has about Tom behind him and celebrate this change for the better, especially in that the scripture extols a man who gets himself a wife.
The tragic irony is that Martin is not that loving father in the Bible, joyful at his son’s return. He is villainous, arrogant, unloving. Ultimately, he brings about his own devastation in an attempt to gain revenge and obviate his self-hatred of an act he committed nine years before for which he cannot forgive himself. Thus, his Christianity fails him; though in outward form he is staunchly religious and condemning of others. Brilliantly, mac Liammóir has threaded the themes within the characterizations of Martin, Bairbre and Tom. And he has set the events in motion organically with their behaviors that are rooted in emotional, psychological, sociological logic which the principal actors (Pennington, Meaney, Horgan) portray with power.
Tom’s wife Bairbre is the most well-rounded characterization in the play and the most empathetically and tragically drawn. Her destiny is set in “stone” (a feature of the setting symbolically) by the folkways of the time and the hypocritical mores of the social structure. These are manifest in Martin’s attitude toward her and the marriage along with her Uncle’s, Bartley’s (Daniel Marconi) and widowed, ever-praying neighbor Máire’s (Cynthia Mace) attitudes. For example to Martin, she’s as good as a dowry and she is guilty before proven innocent. Martin suspects she’s damaged goods to be with his son. Martin doesn’t even consider giving her the benefit of the doubt or encourage finer behavior; he condemns. Bartley takes liberties in insulting her in front of Tom and Uncle Conroy. Uncle Conroy questions her paleness and asks why she would not stay in London, but would move to the “god-forsaken” place on the farm which portends the grave (a reference made a few times in the play).
The hardship of women is a prevalent folkway in this culture and is emphasized throughout the production. It is revealed later in the play when Máire points out Bairbre looks “weak” and she suggests that the hard life of married women and childbirth may kill her as it killed her daughter, especially that she’s come from a cushier lifestyle. Máire faced the hardship of raising her grandson the deaf Batty Wallace-an excellent Liam Forde.
The other characters (Bridin, Bartley, Uncle Conroy) believe that in comparison to the wonderful life she’s led in London (they can’t fathom why she’s left) she is going to undergo a startling and unnerving “period of adjustment” if she and Tom are able to make their home with the taciturn, negative Martin. Bairbre affirms that the farm is just the right place for her with Tom’s love and Tom at her side to sustain her. Clearly, Bairbre faces an uphill battle in this isolated, lugubrious place, facing off against sour Martin.
As the playwright unfolds Martin’s character (he is the perfect foil and serves as the catalyst and driving force in the conflict with Bairbre) we note that he represents the misogyny, traditionalism and oppressive, abusive behavior that men applied to women whom they considered their underlings and chattel. If women were unmarried and orphaned as Bairbre was until three days prior to their arrival, their opportunities were limited. This was especially so if they lacked an education in a trade or otherwise. Education was very rare for women without money or class status. Oftentimes, women were destined to be servants of the wealthy or handmaids of husbands who were preeminent. Good jobs were difficult to come by, but apparently in London Bairbre has had a decent job to make a living for herself until she meets Tom. Uncle Conroy reads this in her letter to him as Martin listens with disdain.
Tom, the antithesis of his father is sweet, pliant, kind-hearted, innocent, loving. It is no wonder that Bairbre leaps at the chance to be with him, for he exemplifies a man who is a companionable partner and a “helpmeet,” not a dictator or autocrat that land owner Martin obviously is. To Uncle Conroy, Martin proclaims Tom a “stammering slob,” who threw off two arranged marriages (with substantial dowries most probably). Uncle Conroy counters that in these current times, arranged marriages are avoided by the young. He assures Martin that he should give the newlyweds a chance. However, as the characterization shows out, Martin’s mind is inflexible, like a stone mountain.
When Uncle Conroy leaves, goodness and light also leave, along with hope of “the mountains looking different,” a theme of the play. When Bairbre left for London as a sixteen-year-old to escape the mountain’s shadow of desolation in an unpromising life of poverty, she sought her fortune with the promise of youth. When she returns a happy, married women, “the mountains appear different,” because she has changed into a respectable woman with a man by her side. The marriage vows define her and she is subject to no other definition. No man can slime her reputation or hold sway over her newly established “ethos” which has been granted to her by the priest she confessed to. She is a new person and with Tom’s love she will continue to be this new person.
However, Martin’s false Christianity will not allow her to be this new, respectable woman. He will not allow her to remain at the farm because he “knows” her from nine years before, as in the Biblical phrase of “knowing.” Stepping into the dark recesses of evil and sin which his shallow, form-filled Christianity cannot expurgate, Martin offers Bairbre a devil’s bargain. She may remain with Tom on the farm, but must stay on his terms and pay his asking price. Bairbre’s decision is fated; she explains that “the mountains don’t look different” after all. Ironically, she chooses the only way out to maintain the dignity that is blossoming in her soul. Her act of self-defense is a supremely sardonic, “un-Christian” one that during the original premiere of the play brought controversy and outrage. In that expression of outrage and its plot and themes, the play is wildly current. Indeed, though one would hope the “mountains look different” in our lives, a trope meaning cultural and personal progress comes with every generation, in parts of the U.S. as in this play’s culture and folkways, nothing has changed.
This is a marvelous work by mac Liammóir. The Mint Theater Company’s production has brought it to life as it deserves, with emotional and riveting performances by the ensemble and appropriate shepherding by the director. A caveat is that sometimes the accents slide over the words and comprehension becomes diminished. This is a pity because the play is powerful. Every word is critical, especially to emphasize the themes of redemption, entrenched evil conveyed by hypocritical mores, the love of money as the root of all evil, self-hatred and unforgiveness causing destruction. The playwright’s seminal characterizations must “take no prisoners,” and will further shine as the actors embody the roles with clarity that resonates for us today.
Kudos goes to the creative team: Vicki R. Davis (sets) Andrea Varga (costumes) Christian Deangelis (lights) M. Florian Staab (sound) Heather Martin Bixler (music director) Chris Fields (props).
The Mountains Look Different runs with one intermission at Theatre Row on 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth until 14 July. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.