John Milton Synge stated of the “things which nourish the imagination, humor is one of the most needful, and it is dangerous to limit or destroy it.” Two of Synge works which employ satire and raucous humor to entertain and make fun of stereotypes found amongst the Irish country folk around 1903 are The Tinker’s Wedding and In the Shadow of the Glen. Directed by Charlotte Moore and starring wonderful actors from those often seen at The Irish Repertory Theatre, the enjoyable evening of these two Synge works flies by. One leaves with a belly-full of laughter and a smile on their face.
Both plays are set in 1903 County Wicklow in Ireland before Ireland was a Republic. And one imagines a fairly desolate area is the terrain where the humorous events take place in each work.
In The Tinker’s Wedding, the cast sings an upbeat folk song about a wedding where one pictures the happy townsfolk dancing and carousing “heel for heel and toe for toe, arm and arm and row on row, all for ‘Marie’s Wedding.'” The ebullient mood of the piece displayed in the music and vibrancy of the actors quickly shifts to argument between Michael Byrne (John Keating), and Sarah Casey (Jo Kinsella), who are companions but who have not yet married.
The irony is clear for couples getting married in Ireland and elsewhere. On the wedding day everyone is happy. Afterward, marriage is a different can of beans and couples are as miserable as they can stand each other to be. Interestingly, Michael Byrne and Sarah Casey have jumped to the difficulties without being married. And now with a marriage ceremony to be conducted by the priest who is nearby, perhaps they may have some joy.
As they argue about the ring which Michael makes for Sarah which doesn’t fit, Michael questions why they need to be married at all. Sarah replies that she is renown in the county as the Beauty of Ballinacree and could get a number of the men who have acknowledged her beauty to marry her if Michael refuses. She says this to spur Michael from his intractable reluctance. However, Michael is having none of her boasting and doesn’t in the least act jealous, but uses her self-puffery as an occasion for irony and humor. He likens other individuals’ comments about her to the names of the horses that race at Arklow and refers to her easily swallowing the words of “liars.” Their banter is humorous and we question why they should be married after the fact of their having been together, especially since Sarah threatens to leave him because of his funny but insulting retorts.
When the Priest (Sean Gormley) comes into their midst, Sarah bargains with him for the money he wants to marry them. We question the Priest’s “high and mighty” attitude and think that he is classist because he won’t perform the ceremony for free for tinkers who roam the country side, have no roots and persuing questionable activities in the dark of the moon. Later in the play it comes out why he is reluctant; he is aware of their thefts in the neighborhood, though they manage to get away with it. Nevertheless, he agrees to marry them for money and a “tin can” that Michael has been laboring over.
Enter Mary Byrne (the humorous Terry Donnelly), Michael’s mother. Tipsy, cradling a bottle of alcohol like a baby, she is a humorous caricature of one who obviously enjoys slaking her thirst daily. For hospitality and “friendship,” she offers a drink to the Priest to manipulate him to favor her son and daughter-in-law’s marriage request.
Afterwards, when Mary Byrne is alone, she sees an opportunity to steal from her son an item promised to the Priest which she then will sell for drink. The complications arise between the characters. Mary Byrne throws the couple’s wedding plans into the bog after they discover she double crosses them. They double cross the priest who vows not to get revenge. However, he has a better plan for their reckoning which they can never flee, though they scramble with their belongings far away from the praying cleric.
In the Shadow of the Glen, a Tramp (John Keating), knocks on Nora Burke’s (Jo Kinsella) door. Lonesome with her husband possibly just having died since he hasn’t moved or made a peep, Nora opens the door and invites him in from the storm. Hospitably, she offers the Tramp a drink and tells him the story of her husband who she fears is dead and who cursed her not to lay a hand on him if he died in his bed. Only his sister can prepare him for the funeral ceremony and burial, Nora tells the Tramp. Their conversation is laced with spooky mystery as the subjects range from the quick to the dead and Nora explains that her husband was a queer old man who went up to the hills where he was “thinking dark thoughts.”
When she asks the Tramp to see if her husband Dan Burke (Sean Gormley) is cold and dead, the Tramp protests that he doesn’t want to bring down the curse on his own head. They continue to discuss their tribulations and the death of one they both know until finally Nora tells him she must find the young farmer who would do chores for them and who the Tramp ran into on his way toward the Burkes. She will ask the farmer to stop by with her, check on her husband. If he is dead, the next morning he can tell the village that Dan Burke has passed. Most possibly, Burke’s sister who lives about ten miles away will then be notified. Nora asks the Tramp to stay with her husband’s dead body until she returns.
One anticipates what will happen next which is absolutely hysterical. The hijinx continue after Nora returns with the young Michael Dara (Ciaran Bowling), who is well off and appears to be interested in Nora’s inheritance from Dan Burke’s estate. With the body not yet “cold” nor burned in ashes, Dara makes plans for Nora to be his wife. However, she is not so easily persuaded. And as events transpire, the humorous explosions (I belly laughed so heard) heighten then resolve into an ironic ending.
Charlotte Moore strikes just the right tone, shepherding her cast into the humor inherent in Synge’s characterizations, as he satirizes these couples and the relationships that bind them that can’t quite be referred to as loving. In each instances we understand the importance of money, the fear of destitution and the solitude of the environs contributing to the dynamic and topsy turvy events.
The music and song that introduces each work sets the scene and establishes the tenor of Synge’s plays. Marie’s Wedding appropriately opens The Tinker’s Wedding sung by the entire cast and accompanied on guitar by Sean Gormley. As the character of Mary in The Tinker’s Wedding, Terry Donnelly sings with lyrical humor “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched,” a traditional Irish ballad, and two refrains, one from “A Lonesome Ditch in Ballygan,” and the other from “Whisper With One.” Between the Acts in The Tinker’s Wedding, Sean Gormley sings and performs his original song, “A Smile Upon My Face.” In the second play, In The Shadow of the Glen, Ciaran Bowling’s clear, bell-ringing voice beautifully interprets “Red is the Rose,” a traditional Gaelic ballad.
Moore has cleverly employed the space of the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre to suggest the settings with whimsy and attention to details in the play. The economy of props and accessibility to them is thoughtful and acute as always, thanks to creatives Daniel Geggatt (set design), David Toser (costume design), Michael O’Connor (lighting design), Nathanael Brown (co-sound design) Kimberly S. O’Loughlin (co-sound design).
Two by Synge is a highly enjoyable and finely presented example of why Synge’s work lasts in its evocation of human nature and particular Irish themes conveyed with light hearted humor and grace. For tickets and times go to the Irish Repertory Theatre website: https://irishrep.org/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw6pOTBhCTARIsAHF23fLAjBdNTydq_KkznLEVR1YEogYRKeF4w1gWXnS8RFwGqLnyR5GBZTMaAmfpEALw_wcB