It’s December, on the night after a wake. In the kitchen of an old house, an old man is washing dishes. It’s early dark. His middle-aged son ducks into the raw night to find his neighbor out by the barn, standing under the roof and smoking her father’s pipe. Her father died this morning, and she found him quiet in bed.
In an Irish town not long ago, John Patrick Shanley opens Outside Mullingar, a light comedy, a love story with a skimming of satire, running June 19 to July 13 at Berkshire Theatre Group, directed by Berkshire actor and filmmaker Karen Allen.
The play begins in an isolation that seems to come more from changing times, education or lack of it, and old choices unquestioned for years than from geography.
It is set in Killucan, Ireland, in 2008. On a map, Mullingar and Killucan are 40 miles from Dublin, much closer to the capital than the Berkshires are to New York City — about as close as White Plains is to Brooklyn — and they have been connected closely for centuries. As the Berkshires have had the train and the Hudson River, long before the Mass Pike and the New York Thruway came through, Killucan and Mullingar have the Grand Canal, the railway and now two main highways.
Mullingar is a large market town, and Killucan a village a few miles away. In 2008, they were feeling the tremors of the same economic crash the U.S. felt then, but the Irish towns had grown rapidly in the 1990s and 2000s, Allen said, as the Irish economy grew.
In fact, Mullingar has meant prosperity since the 19th century — beef to the heels like a Mullingar heifer means a well-fed cow, or a well-heeled man or woman. (James Joyce uses the common phrase in Ulysses: Leopold Bloom’s daughter lives in Mullingar, working in a photographer’s shop, and she writes to her parents about a bustling fair day.)
As Allen explored the play, she has discovered a rich history of farming in Ireland.
“I was surprised by how predominant it is,” she said, “and how much of the land is in small farms today, family-run farms. And they do well, because they provice Europe a huge amount of resources. It’s a tradition going back thousands of years. It’s a fertile place, by design.”
Mullingar held a large annual cattle market until 2003, when it closed for an even larger housing development. But in Shanley’s fictional town, two farming families seem to have cut themselves off from the world, and technology amounts to one broken television.
“Computers, cell phones, these things are not mentioned,” Allen said. “This could seem odd, but two years ago, when I was working on a film in rural Pennsylvania, we had no cell service for a month.”
Spending several weeks without wi-fi or a solid internet connection gave her a perspective, she said, on how difficult it was to reach people.
In 2008, the first iPhones were a year old and reception could be scarce outside of urban areas, and James McMenamin, who plays Anthony Reilly, traveled through Ireland without one. But Facebook had just announced that it would set up its international headquarters in Dublin (and did a few months later).
Shanley’s farmers have rarely looked beyond their own small town.
“The Reillys have lived side by side with the Muldoons for — ever,” said Deborah Hedwall, who plays Aoife Muldoon.
Aoife has just lost her husband. She is in bad health and worried for her daughter. They
supportive, loving, earthy and unsentimental relationship, Hedwell said. She sees Rosemary as volatile.
“You accept my secrets,” said Shannon Marie Sullivan, savoring her character as Rosemary.
Hedwall smiled back. “I hold them dear.”
All four characters in the play, Allen said, have run against places where they are locked in, where they came to an agreement years ago and in time have come to understand it differently.
Tony Reilly, Anthony’s father, lost his wife eight years ago. He has lived on the farm all his life. But when his wife died, she took most of his strength and will with her.
On this raw night, remembering her and facing the death of his longtime neighbor, he is fighting the idea of leaving the farm to his son. Anthony has run the farm for 20 years, and he has modernized it to keep it going, repairing the barns and bringing a new baler to make round bales of hay.
That kind of new equipment can mean a new way of working on the land. Hay has to dry in the sun before its baled, and Anthony can make round bales after two days now, when square bales need three, a boon in a damp climate. But the round bales weigh more than 500 pounds and need a tractor to lift them. It’s a job for one man and a machine, not the team of neighbors and teenagers keeping busy in the summers who might have stacked the older square bales in the barn by hand.
“There’s a generation gap that happens,” DeMunn said. “Anthony has influences in his life that were never in my life or of interest to me, and I don’t understand them.”
Anthony feels a responsibility to stay and care for the family, McMenamin said, and he has no real desire to leave.
“Most of us don’t know any other way,” he said.
He has two sisters and an uncle who have left, and Rosemary dreams of travel. They feel a pull to the land, Sullivan said. They love it. They feel trapped by it.
“The wake is a catalyst to examine the past — and the future,” McMenamin said. “Everyone is an open nerve.”
Anthony and Rosemary will have to ask what it means to have a right of way into someone else’s private places, why they have chosen to stay, and what they will do now, if an open nerve can lead to an open mind.
On Stage …
What: John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar
Where: Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre, 6 East St., Stockbridge
When: June 19 to July 13
Admission: $47 to $56
Information: 413-997-4444, berkshiretheatre.org