Monday, July 20, 2015

Sharon’s Grave - Spellbinding Celtic Myth Woven into Reality of Survival

Karen Baum, Bryon Anthony and Martin Giles in "Sharon's Grave" Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons

    I can’t recall who it was that said learning a second language is like being a citizen of another country. In Irish playwright, John B. Keane’s brilliant play, "Sharon’s Grave" the language may be English, but the way it’s transformed by the characters living on the far western reaches of County Kerry, Ireland, it becomes almost like a second language - one that both understandable to American ears yet foreign in the way it’s constructed, stretched and manipulated into a novel way of speaking.
The manner in which Keane, a popular playwright in his native land, strings together his glorious words is one of the best assets of the drama, now getting a staging by PICT Classical Theatre in the intimate Henry Heymann Theatre in Oakland.
American-born but now living in Ireland, Aoife Spillane-Hinks directs the play and, I presume, has a hand in guiding the cast through the labyrinth of Irish dialect and diction. No expert on the niceties of pronunciation, I thought the cast’s dialogue sparkled with enough Irish color to satisfy my need for linguistic veracity, although some small measure of the lines and phrases did escape my total comprehension.
When the lights go up on the cozy, Conlee family cottage family (impressively designed by scenic designer Johnmichael Bohach), we hear audio cues of screeching seagulls and waves crashing against the palisade atop which the Conlees live.
These haunting sounds are more than just referents to play’s locale (the time period is 1925). They’re also echoes of an older pre-Christian time which gave birth to the local legend of a beautiful princess, Sharon, and her fateful ties to her jealous handmaiden, Shiofra. It’s a seaside legend that’s masterfully woven into the plot of an Irish family set at odds against one another in an effort to survive the challenging obstacles of post-independent rural Ireland where the ownership of land was so vitally essential.
On paper, you wouldn’t give Trassie Conlee, the daughter of the farm owner, much chance of keeping the land after her father John Henry Steelman), seen on his deathbed presumably just hours before his demise, after he passes. Her unscrupulous, duplicitous and half-crazed cousin, Dinzie, wants the property for himself, vehemently so.
James FitzGerald and J. Alex Noble in "Sharon's Grave" Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons

Karen Baum’s Trassie, while strong and intelligent, seems no match for her crippled cousin, whose hunched back conjures up parallels to King Richard III and his regal malice. As the malcontent, James FitzGerald’s performance is mesmerizing, one of the best I’ve seen on stage this season. While his character may be physically withered, his force of will is powerfully intimidating. Even his burly brother, Jack, (played by J. Alex Noble) who obsequiously carries him around on his back, is fearful of his wrath.
What makes Trassie’s plight even more frangible is that she has to care for her simple-minded brother, Neelus, a youth infatuated with the Sharon myth who spends too much time sitting by the sea ruminating on the ancient princess’ tragic story. Alec Silberblatt brings an earnest, almost child-like, innocence to the role of Neelus, but is also capable of  transforming his character’s usual benign disposition into one of torment when his personal demons close in.
Martin Giles and Alec Silverblatt in "Sharon's Grave" Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons

Some of the play’s most playful moments take place during  the dead father’s wake when Dinzie reproaches mourners Moll (Sharon Brady) and Miss Dee (Jill Keating) with both clever repartee and threats that verge on the physical.
Keane’s plot does have a silver lining in the form of a heroic figure, a down-on-his-heels itinerant thatcher named Peadar who bursts quietly onto the scene quite conveniently as the play opens.  Byron Anthony initially reveals Peadar as a humble, unassuming and gentle soul, but as he witnesses more and more of Dinzie’s baneful intentions his resolve to protect Trassie and her innocuous brother becomes stronger.
In his colorful panoply of characters, Keane also introduces an almost Falstaffian element in the form of Pats Bo Bwee, a sort of flim-flam man who carries with him a bag of mystifying medicinals. As Bwee, veteran actor, Martin Giles, comes off as a Celtic shaman with one foot in the here-and-now, the other in the flumadiddle of Druidian mythos and his mind hell-bent on his own self-interest. But is it really that simple?
While Keane’s ending may not be to everyone’s liking, the getting there is as entertaining and antic as a leprechaun on midsummer’s night eve.
"Sharon’s Grave," a PICT Theatre production, is at the Henry Heymann Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial at the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland through August 1. Phone 412-561-6000
James FitzGerald and Karen Baum in "Sharon's Grave" Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons.
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