Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Cast, Irish Vernacular and Engrossing Story Line Win "Sive" a Dramatic Trifecta

Karen Baum and Sharon Brady in "Sive Credit PICT Classic Theater

I love a good story, and that’s why I found "Sive" thoroughly captivating.

It wasn’t until a day after I’d seen the play by Irish wordsmith, John B. Keane, that I realized where I’d previously experienced such all-enveloping attention to each and every sentence. It was on my mother’s knee as a four year old listening intently .to the simple childhood story book tales she read at bedtime.

Not that Keane’s tale can be compared to my early infantile literary experiences. It’s much too grown-up and masterfully constructed, so much so it makes for an additional level of appreciation to the author’s wonderful way with colorful, earthy lines and phrases.

Yes, the play is in English, but the dialogue has a certain foreign feel to it, nonetheless. Notwithstanding the cast’s well-formed and intelligible Irish accents, Keane’s text is not only a reflection of the people and culture of Southwestern Ireland’s Kerry County but also a time period that seems exotic by today’s 21st Century sensibilities.

I read somewhere that Keane has been a pub owner in addition to being a playwright and, if the stereotypes I still harbor of pubs being places where the locals gathered to down their Guinness and exchange tales, repartee and jokes still stands, he must have been privy to much in the way of inspirational material.

The Irish, it seems, stoked their gift of gab at these watering holes through the centuries and without the benefit of juke boxes, televisions and other modern contrivances of entertainment that would only serve to disrupt the flow of banter and good conversation.. Blarney Stone be damned!

Keane, who supposedly titled the play in honor of his sister, Sive (in Gaelic Irish, Shiela in English) sets the time period in 1950. But the ambient mood seems even earlier than that. Part of this impression can be credited to scenic designer, Johnmichael Bohach, whose rendition of a simple Irish cottage is cozy enough though devoid of conveniences we now take for granted such as stoves, running water and door locks. The folks who lived in this particular hinterlands of Ireland cooked their foods on a hearth and locked their doors with wooden latches - even in the middle of the 20th Century.

The mind set of the cast of characters is also a bit archaic. Nanna, the play’s feisty grandmother, secretly smokes a pipe she hides from her family under her dress. Night time outdoor treks are made by lantern not flashligh, and roving minstrels, actually a duo of tinkers, still dot the landscape like holdovers from a much earlier age, going from house to house performing in exchange for a cup of tea, a scrap of bread or a pint.

Most importantly to the plot, marriages are still arranged rather than letting nature and romance take their course. It’s this combination of  a quaint and dated time with characters who think, speak and march to a different drum that opens up a new, unfamiliar and fascinating landscape.
James FitzGerald as Thomasheen and Karen Baum as Mena in "Sive
Though Sive may be the title character and the one that ultimately sparks the greatest emotional clout, the major players in the drama are Mena, the householder’s wife, and Thomasheen Sean Rua, the unscrupulous matchmaker. It’s Rua who sets the play rolling on its downward emotional spiral when he arrives with a marriage proposal from a neighboring farmer, Sean Dota. Wealthy by local standards, Dota is also a withered man in his 70s, not the choice 18-year old Sive would choose for herself.

As the young, innocent and sheltered girl barely into adulthood, Cassidy Adkins is wise enough to know she’s abhorred by the prospect of wedding an old doddering lecher, especially since she’s involved in a budding romance with a local lad who’s head over heels for her.

Strongly urging her to commit to the proposal is Mena, (Karen Baum), unhappy in marriage, nagged by her live-in mother-in-law, Nanna (Sharon Brady), neglected by her tepid husband, Mike (Michael Fuller) and mired in hopeless poverty despite a lifetime of toil.

Baum is brilliant as the beleaguered wife, balancing her character’s mercenary impulses that have her coveting the 200 pounds promised her should the wedding be carried out with a coolness of temperament that allows her to manipulate her family to get her way.

She’s also a verbal match for her provocative mother-in-law, and the two shoot volleys of insults at one another in a most amusing and entertaining way. Both women, however, seem to know where to draw the line before the china starts flying, the kitchen knives come out and things get physical. As good as Baum is, Brady’s Nanna is a formidable foe and the accomplished actress creates a masterful characterization.

Michel Fuller and Sharon Brady in "Sive"
Pity poor, Mike, Mena’s husband. Fuller shows his character’s conflicted emotions in an excruciating way, empathizing with his niece’s horror of the marriage proposal yet attracted by the possibility of the financial windfall it will bring him.

As Thomasheen, James FitzGerald is powerfully odious and contemptible in his role as the self-seeking matchmaker. He almost hisses snake-like as he manipulates, outwits and controls his fellow characters and events. Animated and depraved by Dota’s promise of a monetary reward should he pull off the marriage contract, he lets nothing stand in the way of reaching his goal.

To Charles David Richards falls the duty of portraying the wizened groom-to-be, a role he wisely plays on a lower emotional ratchet than the other more strident characters. For one, his character’s age suggests a more tranquil demeanor, a trait that also serves as a calming influence in a play performed with considerable vitriol.

Tom Driscoll is cast as Sive’s the ardent lover, and he’s convincing in his forceful fight to save her from her from what appears to be an unfortunate fate. Ironically, their romance is not much explored in the text unlike, say, the balcony scene in Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet," a work that has interesting parallels toKeane’s Similar to the Bard’s play, however, is the importance of a letter that plays a crucial role in both of the playwrights’ dramas.

Surprisingly for realism-based play, Keane adds a surreal element that comes in the form of the wandering troubadours, Pats Babcock (Martin Giles) and Cathalawn (J. Alex Noble.). Their several entrances into the Glavin family household have an eerie, foreboding effect.

When Pats bangs rhythmically  on the floor with his walking stick, Cathalawn picks up the tune, sings stanzas whose words were the only incomprehensible lines in the play. (Admittedly, I do have an aural disability that prevents me from catching sung lyrics in everything from pop songs to opera so don’t blame the messenger).

With an incredibly talented cast, an enlightening and engaging narrative (another story about the power of money to corrupt) and an endearing and colorful vernacular, "Sive" is a praiseworthy dramatic trifecta. Sitting through a performance staged by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre and directed by Alan Stanford is almost like winning the Irish Sweepstakes. Well, almost.

"Sive," (pronounced like alive) a production of PICT Classical Theatre, is at the Union Project, 801 North Negley Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood through May 20. For tickets, phone 412-561-6000.

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