Mindful of how important an opening paragraph is when it comes to keeping the reader’s interest alive, I’d like to say at the top that a play that you probably never heard of, “Wife to James Whelan” emerges from the past as a real find. Its author, who you also probably never heard of — Teresa Deevy — may actually stand up to the accolade, as once proclaimed by another Irish dramatist, Lennox Robinson, as “the most important dramatist writing (at the time) for Irish theater.”
Here’s another thank you to the Mint Theater’s artistic director Jonathan Bank for spending 15 years not only searching for but actually resurrecting and producing lost treasures of dramatic literature. So, with that aside, I am able to respond most enthusiastically to his fine staging and direction of “Wife of James Whelan” by the regrettably obscured Irish playwright Teresa Deevy.
A close-knit group of working class, life-long friends shares camaraderie as well as an affection for Kilbeggan, the small Irish town (given an impressive brick and stone ambiance by set designer Vicki R. Davis), where they have grown up and worked together. Some express their slightly ingenuous feelings, however, toward James Whelan (Shawn Fagan), a cocky, feisty, self-assured young man who has just been singled out from amongst a dozen young men and selected for an excellent job that will take him to Dublin.
The news of his imminent departure doesn’t sit well with Nan (Janie Brookshire,) the pretty girl he loves and who loves him. Nan has her doubts about James’s assurance that he will return in six months with enough money to marry her. Her feelings are conflicted not only by the arrival in town of a gentle young man, Jack (Thomas Matthew Kelley), who is showing her some attention, but also by two of the local blokes, Tom Carey (Aiden Redmond) and Bill McGafferty (Jeremy S. Holm), who wouldn’t mind if she looked their way. Looking upon all this romantic maneuvering and wavering is the lovely, slightly older, Kate (Rosie Benton) whose true feelings for James are consigned to friendship.
Act II begins with James coming back to Kilbeggan after seven years, a successful business man. His plans to open a bus company in town includes the hiring of his old friends as well as Nan, who has since become an impoverished widow with a four-year-old child. Things go terribly awry when Nan does something foolish out of desperation.
As you might expect in an Irish play, there is plenty of talk, much of it witty and snappy. There is little room for subtlety as James, in particular as the power-driven employer, lets his volatile emotions loose and his fists fly. As a playwright, Deevy seems infinitely more concerned with the contrariness and arbitrariness of human nature than with the way a story might naturally develop. The dramatic scope of this play may be conspicuously narrow, but not the broad emotional spectrum through which we see and get know each character. It’s good to report that the actors, many of whom are new to the Mint, are giving richly realized performances.
Although the play bridges seven years, there are basically only two incidents that bring a life-altering change to the characters: James’s rise to success as the head of an expanding business and Nan’s descent into penury. Otherwise we are completely invested in the developing and deepening connections between the characters. They may not change their nature, but they are seen as increasingly vulnerable and subject to behaving irrationally.
Fagan may or may not have modeled his performance as the bossy and often brutally brusque James Whelan after the kind of nervously edgy, tough-as-nails character that James Cagney played so often in films. But, he is, as are the other characters around whom his life revolves, distinctly calibrated to surprise even himself. The play gets an unexpected jolt when Nora Keane (Liv Rooth), the aggressively flirtatious daughter of a local wealthy businessman, makes a play for the resistant James. How her intrusion impacts on the never completely resolved relationship between James and Nan or, for that matter, with Kate (an especially touching performance by Benton) triggers a revelatory denouement.
Brookshire earns, as she should, our sympathy as the long-suffering Nan whose life has taken a few unfortunate turns. John Fletcher has some wonderfully funny moments as Kate’s younger brother Apollo, who only manages to irk his employer when his only aim is to please. Redmond makes an outstanding impression as Tom, the bus driver whose life-long infatuation with Nan may pay off some day. There’s always a place for a trouble-maker like Bill and Holm handles that assignment with assurance.
Despite the fact that Deevy (1894 to 1963) succumbed to total deafness while still a university student, her talent was recognized by the Abbey Theater in Dublin during the first half of the 1930s when they produced the first six of her seven plays. If her early success did not secure for her a future as a renowned playwright, she would at least leave a small canon of plays that are undoubtedly ready for reappraisal. We are grateful to Bank for his discovery and deliverance of “Wife to James Whelan” and the care and integrity with which it is being performed and presented. ***
“Wife to James Whelan,” through Sunday, October 3, Mint Theater, third floor at 311 West 43rd Street. $55. 212-315-0231.