John B. Keane’s The Field, a 1964 drama now enjoying its New York debut, concerns rural Irishmen who lie, coerce, and kill for the sake of a four-acre plot. In present-day Manhattan, where murder has been attempted over a few hundred square feet of rent-controlled apartments, such behavior seems not unreasonable—acres, after all! Besides, as the village priest (Craig Baldwin) intones, “This is a parish in which you understand hunger. You know what it is to starve because you do not own your own land. . . . How far are you prepared to go to appease this hunger? Are you prepared to kill for land?” Clearly!
Nevertheless, Keane wrings consequence and conflict from his subject, crafting a grave moral thriller in which the actions of his characters, and the characters themselves, fluctuate between the contemptible and the sympathetic. Keane scripts flawed, appetitive, intricate people, constrained by individual and social pressures. You might reprove their choices but can’t imagine them making other ones.
The land in question, a meadow belonging to the Widow Butler, is up for auction. Bull McCabe (Marty Maguire), a local farmer, feels he deserves it—he’s rented it for grazing and enriched it with his cows’ manure. But interloper William Dee (George C. Heslin), an Englishman who wants to pave the field and use it for his concrete business, has deeper pockets. This angers the brutish Bull, who tells Dee, “You’re a stranger. You wouldn’t understand. You don’t know about land.”
Keane does, it seems, know land and writes about it with a melancholy grace. With equal care he also explores the murder’s effects on the community. It falls on director Ciarán O’Reilly, the Irish Repertory Theatre’s co-founder, to create that community. He does it ably, allowing characters’ postures and stances to indicate the village’s allegiances and structures, a hothouse where “You couldn’t turn in your bed but they’d know it.” O’Reilly performs such a successful elucidation of Keane’s script, that should he elect to revive the rest of Keane’s plays, that would be a field day indeed.