LANESBORO — The challenge in producing a much-praised work, such as "Outside Mullingar," which opened last weekend at the Commonweal Theatrein Lanesboro, is to match expectations.
The play, by John Patrick Shanley, was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play in 2014. Critics have called the play, which is essentially a romantic comedy, magical and lyrical. Happily, the Commonweal production is as charming as advertised.
It is also relatively short and unfussy, which allows us to enjoy the company of these lovable characters and not feel as if they have overstayed their welcome. It's another strong production in a season that has seen the Commonweal go from highlight to highlight, whether drama, musical or comedy.
The play takes place in Ireland, where two neighbors, Rosemary Muldoon and Anthony Reilly, have reached their 40s without finding a life partner. Each is still living with a parent, still searching for whatever is supposed to be out there. Rosemary knows what it is: love. And she's intent on grabbing what could be her last chance at it. Anthony, meanwhile, struggles with a poor self-image, and an inability to imagine himself as a loving human being (what he actually does imagine himself as is what has caused some of the, ahem, buzz about this play).
The lead roles are handled with grace and intelligence by Adrienne Sweeney and Jeremy van Meter. Sweeney's Rosemary is feisty, pushy and determined — a straightforward, strong woman who at times allows the young, hopeful girl in her to come out. Likewise, van Meter's Anthony seems at times to slide into and hide within regrets about his younger years. Getting him to focus on the possibilities of tomorrow is Rosemary's challenge.
Just as enjoyable are Hal Cropp, as Anthony's father, Tony, and Miriam Monasch as Rosemary's mother, Aoife. Tony, with his wheezing laugh, is one of Cropp's better creations, and Monasch is simply marvelous in her portrayal of Aoife.
"Outside Mullingar" is a play of language. It is one of those rare times when watching people sit and talk at a kitchen table is entrancing. Much of that is due to Shanley's use of the quirky expressions and turns of phrase of rural Irish speakers.
Would the play be as attractive without the Irish speech? Strip away the Irish accents and set this play in, for instance, rural Minnesota, and the story it has to tell would still be romantic and heartwarming — although probably not nearly as beguiling.