Gloomy certainly describes many Irish-American plays, comedy or drama. And gloom certainly sets the stage for “Outside Mullingar,” John Patrick Shanley’s romantic comedy about a most unexpected couple in rural Ireland — or perhaps not so unexpected.
“I just thought it was utterly charming,” explains Melissa Lourie, founder and artistic director of the professional Middlebury Acting Company.
“For me, it was hilariously funny, the poetry and the language, and the oddity of the whole thing, I just loved it,” she said. “Irish humor is dark — and that’s the kind of humor I like — humor that touches on the most painful and difficult parts of life and makes it funny.
“I think Shanley has a genius for finding humor in the hardest parts of life,” she said.
Lourie will be directing when Middlebury Acting Company continues its 2021 outdoor season with “Outside Mullingar” Sept. 23-26 under The Swift House Tent in Middlebury.
“Outside Mullingar” premiered on Broadway in 2014, and critic Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times that it “represented Mr. Shanley’s finest work since ‘Doubt.’” Shanley is an Irish American playwright and screenwriter whose play, “Doubt: A Parable,” won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2005 Tony Award for Best Play. He also won the 1988 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his film “Moonstruck.”
In “Outside Mullingar,” loner Anthony Reilly has the soul of a poet and a keen imagination, but his painful shyness keeps him from revealing his true self. Rosemary Muldoon, popular with all the guys, is a headstrong beauty with a temper and a biting wit.
With Anthony’s father threatening to disinherit him and a land feud simmering between their families, Rosemary and Anthony continue to clash. In this very Irish story with a surprising depth of poetic passion, these yearning eccentric souls fight in hope for some kind of happiness.
Lourie’s cast features newcomers Alexandra Hudson and Eric Reid-St. John in the roles of Rosemary and Anthony. Husband and wife team of Gary Smith and Mary Adams-Smith, both professional actors who recently retired to Vermont, round out the cast as Anthony’s father and Rosemary’s mother.
The company was halfway through rehearsals in March 2020 at Town Hall Theater when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“So we stopped what we were doing,” Lourie said. “We resumed this year with a slightly different cast. We had Haley Rice as Rosemary, but she had to pull out. They’re both wonderful, so I’m happy either way.”
COVID precautions also led to a change of venue for Middlebury Acting Company, which began its summer season in August with “Constellations.”
“I’m excited that we’re going to do it in a tent — it’s much more intimate than Town Hall,” Lourie said.
But that led to staging challenges, with only one 8-by-17-foot platform to perform on.
“So we really can’t do multiple locations,” Lourie said. “There are a bunch of locations in this play, so I had to radically re-vision how I was going to do it.”
That meant stripping away almost all the realistic set ingredients.
“But I really like that actually,” Lourie said. “So the play isn’t about creating a beautiful Irish environment. It will be very attractive to look at, but it will be one space that can serve many purposes — so the focus is squarely on the actors and what’s going on.
“The language is so rich and delightful and now it will be front and center,” she said.
Another challenge is that Irish accents are not easy. Alex Hudson, who went to school in Ireland, is serving as coach.
“You know, it’s not easy, especially for the older actors to get their ears — and tongues and lips — in a smooth functioning Irish accent,” Lourie said. “You want it to be not too heavy, so people can understand every word.”
Time is also always a challenge, especially for a small Vermont theater.
“I’m working with actors, two of whom are working full time, in addition to rehearsing, so it’s a challenge for enough rehearsal time,” Lourie said. “But that’s not unusual for us.
“I think it’s the usual challenges of doing theater in Vermont,” Lourie said. “I’m lucky that I have a superb cast. It’s been good.”
And the quality of the material doesn’t hurt, with its rich, dark humor, and the very human quirkiness of its four characters.
“There are so many hilarious and priceless turns of phrase in this play,” Lourie said. “John Patrick Shanley is a genius at capturing the wit of the Irish. I can’t stop laughing in the rehearsal hall!”