Steeped in Irishness, with a brogue as thick as your great-grandma’s corset, The Colleen Bawn is nonetheless an American play, premiered in New York in 1860. Though Irish scenes and characters, largely stereotyped, had been seen on English and American stages for decades, Dion Boucicault, comic actor and melodramatist extraordinaire, was a pioneer in making plays that were genuinely of Ireland, steeped in love for its landscape and with a sharp awareness of the tensions that pervaded its people.
Myles-na-Coppaleen, poacher and bootlegger, is a lovesick buffoon who, by his innate goodness and mother wit, becomes the saving grace of the play’s intrigue, which centers on the secret marriage of the beautiful peasant girl Eily, the fair colleen or “colleen bawn” of the title, to the debt-ridden and only waveringly honest local squire, Hardress Cregan. Cregan will lose the ancestral estate if he doesn’t marry his wealthy cousin Anne—with whom, to twist the dramatic knot further, his best friend is in love.
Boucicault handles these matters subtly enough to make the play worth any theater student’s time, and entertainingly enough to provide fun for any audience when well played. Regrettably, Charlotte Moore’s production falls way down in the latter department, despite an attractive set by James Morgan and several effective bits of staging, including the “sensation” scene of Eily’s rescue. With the mild exceptions of Terry Donnelly and George C. Heslin, the cast conveys only the vaguest sense of Boucicault’s craft; the only complete success, all beauty, clarity, and tenderness, is Heather O’Neill’s Eily. It’s a sad comedown from the company’s delightful romp through The Shaughraun four years ago. Even so, it’s one of the four best plays currently running in town.