I could wish, and fairly often do, that I liked the Mint Theater’s productions better. But when an institution fulfills a necessary function, one on which most of its sister institutions have fallen down on the job, you cut the folks who do the right thing a certain amount of slack. Jonathan Bank, the Mint’s artistic director, is not one of the world’s great directors—at times perhaps not even a very good one. But he’s extremely good at fulfilling the function for which the Mint was created: to find and produce neglected or forgotten plays that are worth seeing.
The task’s doubly needful because our culture, besotted with the idea of newness, is barely willing to give even a moderately well-known play or playwright from the past a halfway chance. For our mainstream-minded producers, American drama consists almost entirely of the five most bankable titles by each of three writers: Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams, plus or minus a few single items by whoever else happens to be the literary-nostalgia flavor of the month. With British and Irish plays, our overall situation is even worse: Virtually nothing from the past gets seen over here unless preapproved, and mostly pre-produced, over there. And did the European continent turn out any interesting dramatic literature in the past 1,000 years? Aside from four plays by Chekhov, two each by Ibsen and Moliere, and one by Strindberg, apparently not.
This makes the Mint’s willingness to shoulder the burden all the more admirable. As a perfect instance, take their current production: Teresa Deevy’s 1932 breakout play, Temporal Powers. Never heard of Deevy? Neither had most knowledgeable playgoers, myself included, until August 2010, when the Mint produced her late and almost wholly unseen play, Wife to James Whelan (1942).
Deevy (1894-1963) amply justifies the rediscovery effort. The fascinating struggle of her life—she became deaf at age 20 from Ménière’s disease and fell in love with the theater while learning to lip-read—matches but hardly seems to impinge on her plays’ distinctive quality. More, it appears not to have been a factor in the struggle that grants her a notable niche in Irish literary history: Nurtured by the Abbey Theatre through the 1930s, she became one of its leading writers with Temporal Powers, her second Abbey production, only to be inexplicably shunned after its artistic management changed. Much of her later work was written—improbably, given her condition—for radio.
Where Wife to James Whelan showed Deevy’s allegiance, though no literal indebtedness, to formative modernists such as Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw, Temporal Powers, written a decade earlier, is replete with echoes of her Abbey predecessors: A last-act offstage brouhaha narrated by gawkers at a window recalls a similarly placed scene in Synge’s Playboy of the Western World; a misunderstood potential menace evokes O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman; a helpfully unhelpful busybody neighbor might have stepped right out of Lady Gregory’s one-acts. But as in Wife to James Whelan, Deevy turns these parallels to her own account, altering each device till the resemblance becomes no more than a tip of the literary hat.
Her purpose, strikingly, is the creation of a moral parable, testing competing notions of right and wrong while weighing material wealth against wealth of spirit. The significant parallel here is not with any earlier playwright but with her own later work: Like Wife to James Whelan, Temporal Powers pits a rigidly moral man’s obstinacy against a desperate woman’s willingness to forgo morality at a time of urgent need. As in the latter play, the conflict is embodied in a couple who ought to love each other but don’t and whose dispute centers on a theft of money.
But Temporal Powers‘ Min and Michael Donovan (Rosie Benton and Aidan Redmond) constitute a near antithesis to the hero and heroine of Wife to James Whelan. Instead of an ambitious, overweening man whose obduracy increases with success, Michael Donovan is a heroic failure, a hardscrabble farmer too set on maintaining his inner truth to have any worldly ambition whatsoever. His marriage to Min, raised just genteelly enough to acquire a permanent yearning for material comforts, has been an extended battle, pitched midway between vaudeville-sketch bickering and utter Strindbergian bleakness, with each fighting to convert the other’s outlook. As the play opens, they have just been evicted from their home and taken shelter in a ruined cottage nearby.
The largely impoverished neighbors who turn up to show their sympathy offer commiseration rather than actual help: Michael’s sister Maggie (Bairbre Dowling), saddled with multiple children and a just-released jailbird husband (Con Horgan), asks, only half-seriously, why they didn’t move into her house. (Michael replies tersely, “I remembered your house.”) Young Moses Barron (Eli James), himself torn between a domineering mother (Fiana Toibin) and a marriage-hungry girlfriend (Wrenn Schmitt), proffers a share of the leftovers the latter, a domestic servant to the district judge, devotedly passes on to him. The local priest (Robertson Carricart) dithers; Slattery (Jim Carlin), the local philosopher, pontificates about justice.
The neighbors mostly don’t realize that Michael and Min possess the means to escape if they choose: Michael has found, hidden in the ruin, a mysterious sum of money. His integrity resists taking possession of the dubious find; Min sees it as a heaven-sent opportunity to reverse their joint downhill slide. Their debate over honesty versus monetary advantage, carried on clandestinely, to the accompaniment of largely unconscious commentary from the others, makes up the drama’s gripping substance. Rooted in the harsh realistic details of rural poverty and economic upheaval, the work weaves its multifaceted discussion of ownership’s rights and wrongs through a plangent web of down-to-earth language, speckled with the grit of Irish fact. It all ends, again like Wife to James Whelan, with a happy ending that leaves no one involved wholly happy.
Bank’s production, sticking to the work’s realistic surface, plays it so close to the vest that at times it almost disappears, sinking into a constant mutter coated with Gaelic vowels. The comic characters tend to overplay; Benton and Redmond, who were good in James Whelan, come off dogged rather than dramatic. Dowling and Horgan, under less constant pressure, do somewhat better. Only James, jumpy-eyed and wary, seems to have caught his character’s full essence. The shortfall hardly matters: Deevy’s play, solid and startling, lets an unexpected chunk of the past speak truth to the present. And that’s what the Mint is for.