For its 18th annual Master Playwright Festival, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) has chosen to showcase the works of John Patrick Shanley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Doubt: A Parable) and Academy Award-winning screenwriter (Moonstruck). MTC kicks off Shanleyfest with Outside Mullingar, Shanley’s 2014 play about death and unrequited love in rural Ireland.
The story focuses on two neighbouring family farms in 2008, one occupied by an elderly widower (Nigel Bennett) and his son (Mike Nadajewski), the other by an equally elderly widow (Terri Cherniack) and her daughter (Alicia Johnston). The foursome bond over the death of family members and their own impending mortality, while clashing over how to pass their legacies on to the younger generation.
Shanley handles what could be heavy subject matter with a light touch. Sometimes, though, his touch is too light. Shanley understands that anxieties about death and aging aren’t the stuff of the apocalypse, wisely treating them as everyday concerns. But in doing so, it sometimes feels like Outside Mullingar is pulling its punches.
It touches on the looming darknesses of 21st-century life, like the malaise of a detached younger generation more invested in technology than the world around them. But it feels as if Shanley is trying to do so while saying, “We can talk about these things without upsetting anyone, can’t we?”
Bennett (who was so memorable as the menacing Mihalkov in the current Best Picture Oscar nominee The Shape of Water) is very strong as the elderly widower, playing an old-school Irish patriarch cut from a type of cloth they stopped making decades ago.
Cherniack’s bombastic matriarch has the least to do of the four roles, but she brings her reliable comic sensibilities that have been present in so many other MTC productions. Similarly, Nadajewski brings a comedic awkwardness that roots what could otherwise be an old-fashioned story in the present day.
Johnston is offstage for most of the first act. Thus, it’s a slow reveal to the audience that she’s actually the star of this show and by far its strongest element. Her performance as the brusque and abrasive Rosemary is the production’s most layered.
Johnston’s character is Outside Mullingar’s emotional lynchpin. Her unspoken longing needs to be clear to the audience, but the characters around her need to remain oblivious to it. Johnston never falters in pulling it off. The play takes its time in building momentum, but comes alive when she appears onstage.
In some ways, Johnston’s complex performance succeeds in ways that the production, including Shanley’s script, come up short. Shanley’s plays are touted as the kind of works that can make an audience both laugh and cry. Outside Mullingar does both of those things, but it rarely hits both those notes at the same time.
The play is full of laughs and has a few touching moments. But it’s usually only doing one or the other, sometimes oscillating between them from one line to the next. The result is a lack of bitterness in a play aiming for the bittersweet, leaving Outside Mullingar merely sweet.