Repression has been as much a part of the Irish climate as rain. When Ireland finally became an official Free State in 1922, it adopted a constitution that in many respects codified Roman Catholic catechism. Divorce, contraception, and abortion were outlawed. Au-thors were banned. The Vatican loomed large, like Big Brother in a white collar. Of course, much has changed in the intervening decades—yet divorce only became legal in Ireland in 1995, condom machines have been around less than a decade, and Irish women must still furtively head to Britain for an abortion. The downpour may have subsided, but a palpable mist lingers.
The Love-Hungry Farmer (Irish Repertory Theatre) gives voice to the personal suffering exacted by Ireland’s Catholic- clobbered culture. The solo piece—lovingly adapted by the production’s star, Des Keogh, from the late John B. Keane’s Letters of a Love-Hungry Farmer—unfolds as an epistolary tale of a rural gentleman in late middle age who longs for female company in the hypocritical monotony of 1950s Ireland.
“I have the odd feeling that I am the last of my kind,” confides John Bosco McLane to the audience between letters, “that this district shall not hear such mournful sighs of sexual hunger again.” Unmarried, unattached, and feeling even more intensely alone now that his widowed mother has passed away, this dapper 56-year-old receives help in the mail from the matchmaker Dicky Mick Dicky O’Connor, who sends him on a series of disastrous dates. They run the gamut from a woman who has had a child with a different man “for every day of the week” to another whose sex-ual dissatisfaction with her first marriage impels her to inquire what her suitor is like “in the pelt.”
Despite the mercenary way he’s treated, McLane carries within himself a nagging guilt, as though his desire for intimate companionship is somehow innately sinful. His notion of entering Holy Orders as an answer to his woes, however, is wryly rebuffed by a forward-thinking priest who diagnoses the matter as “chastitution,” an endemic problem stemming from the Catholic Church’s proscription of normal erotic relations between the sexes. But religion aside, McLane simply has no luck when it comes to women. On the verge of finally hitting a home run, he’s the victim of a bomb-scare hoax that forces him to flee his hotel room in his underpants.
The narrative has a relaxed, rustic charm that derives pleasure from colorful words and situations. Director Charlotte Moore wisely opts for a spare setting—just a simple sitting room with the wider Irish countryside impressionistically painted on the backdrop. (Too bad, however, she didn’t cut the hokey musical interludes.) But the stage belongs to Keogh, who perfectly embodies McLane’s shy vulnerability and quizzical kindness. Frankly, it’s hard to understand how a raconteur this charmingly mild-mannered could remain unhitched. New York women take note: He’s the most eligible graying bachelor in town.