Irish, female, and hearing-impaired from the age of 20 (Ménière’s disease), the playwright Teresa Deevy (1894–1963) has everything that could lure a theater into an act of literary rediscovery. What nonprofit institution wouldn’t want the glory of reclaiming from oblivion a gender-oppressed, disabled artist born into a minority nation struggling for its independence? For a bonus, even the nationalist theater that nurtured Deevy ultimately turned against her: By the time she completed Wife to James Whelan in 1942, the Abbey Theatre, which had had some success with her earlier plays, was in new, conservative hands; it turned the play down. No further work of hers was produced there.
Deevy’s subsequent plays were written for radio broadcast. The rejected script didn’t have its Dublin premiere till 1956; London has never seen it. Its New York premiere now comes courtesy of the Mint Theater, which specializes in rediscovery. Only one previous Deevy play has ever been seen here, on a tour by the Abbey players in 1937. (Another work brought on that tour was the droll Drama at Inish, by Deevy’s great fan and supporter Lennox Robinson, which the Mint resuscitated last season under its original title, Is Life Worth Living?)
Given all this, critics are inevitably suspicious from the outset. A playwright who sports Deevy’s list of grievances must be a prime candidate for special pleading; culture-of-complaint practitioners undoubtedly arrive at the theater with their bagfuls of apologetics ready to launch. Mercifully, the suspicion dissipates fast, to be replaced by delighted surprise. Deevy is actually a playwright, and a rather good one, with a distinctly individual quality. If her situation in life gave her cause to be aggrieved, you certainly couldn’t tell it from Wife to James Whelan, in which life is explored, sharply and affectingly, while absolutely no axes are ground.
Deevy’s dialogue, colloquially simple and straightforward, seems artless at first. But on closer inspection, it turns out to gleam, like rich ore, with glints of subtext’s precious metal. Hearing-impaired or not, she listened acutely. Her story, like her dialogue, is both simple and not simple, moving forward with a dour gravity that mirrors the near-inexplicable, but thoroughly understandable, obduracy of its two main characters. When Deevy discovered theater—in London, where she was sent to learn lip-reading after becoming deaf—her two main passions were Shaw and Chekhov. Both left their marks on this play, which suggests the unhappy courtship of The Cherry Orchard‘s Lopakhin and Varya, shifted to a small-town Irish setting and submerged in a Shavian parable of achievers versus underdogs. In this latter aspect, it often evokes, eerily, Shaw’s final play, Why She Would Not, left unfinished at his death in 1950. One almost wonders if he hadn’t, somehow, stumbled across Deevy’s still-unproduced script and been provoked to write his own variant.
Although Deevy herself apparently descended from manor-house gentry, no great estate of the kind that complicates matters in Shaw and Chekhov intervenes here. Her play’s title refers not to a person but to a concept: James Whelan (Shawn Fagan) is a factory lad with big ambitions; no one actually becomes his wife in the course of the play, though all three of its female characters contemplate the prospect. Tapped by his employers to fill a better job in Dublin, James readily turns his back on every aspect of rural Kilbeggan, except for Nan (Janie Brookshire), the one person in town who isn’t either elated or envious to see him move up a rung on the economic ladder.
While James, stung in his youth by the genteel snobbery of the local rich, envisions his coming back as a man of means, to bring the region jobs and prosperity, Nan, tart-tongued but sensitive, would prefer him to stay as he is, trading upward mobility for the contentment of a fixed place in this sleepy region where everyone knows and meddles in everyone else’s business. A classic embodiment of male-female misunderstanding, the duo also seems to represent the running dialectic of pre–World War II Ireland, fighting desperately to modernize yet always reluctant to abandon its long-ingrained, heavily class-stratified traditions.
Acts Two and Three take place seven years after James’s departure for Dublin. (The Mint sensibly supplies two intermissions.) Nan, the complacent pessimist who sees no good in change, has duly drawn the ill luck that comes with such low expectations. When James returns from Dublin a newly prosperous entrepreneur, she redoubles that ill luck through a desperate gesture, brought on by the renewed collision of her persistent pride with his now-overweening arrogance. That provides a real shocker of a second-act curtain. The shock is moral: Both Nan and James do something that’s against common sense and against their own best interests, but the elements add up clearly to make us see why people, in certain situations, will do such things. (As the echo of Hedda Gabler in that phrase might suggest, Ibsen, too, seems to have played a part in shaping Deevy’s sensibility.)
Deevy bolsters the effect by surrounding her intransigent almost-lovers with a circle of village characters whose well-meaning interference comes, in part, from equally self-centered motives. Three men besides James flutter around pretty, noncommittal Nan; a fourth, younger, idolizes James, who has befriended him since childhood, but pines for the spoiled and restless rich girl whom James courts on his return. The ending stabilizes, rather than resolves, the situation. Love, like economics, is a perpetually mixed blessing, forever subject to change.
Jonathan Bank’s production does what we now expect Mint productions to do: It lays the play out cleanly, a distinct blessing in the case of a work this good. The acting, solidly competent, is rarely inspired; Bank’s direction tends either to slide glossily over key points or to hammer them home. Rosie Benton, as the most matronly of James’s adorers, Jon Fletcher as his idolizer, and Aidan Redmond as the helpful fellow who talks of knowing “the right time” for everything, but whose advice invariably chimes in at the wrong time, each manage to make a few such moments tell without any hammering.