The Irish Battle in Katie Roche and Donnybrook!, Chinese-Americans in Hwang’s Dance and the Railroad


“I could hate the lovable Irish,” sings the hero of the 1961 Broadway musical Donnybrook! (Irish Rep), “but I’m Irish myself.” We all know that strange mixture of pride, irritation, and affectionate contempt for our own ethnic group, nation, religion, profession, economic class, or whatever we belong to. We may simultaneously adore it, feel comfortable only when around it, despise it, and desperately wish it would disappear. Identity is always a bittersweet gift.

“I was meant to be proud,” says the heroine of Teresa Deevy’s 1936 play Katie Roche (Mint Theater), an Irish village girl, upon learning who her father was. “Didn’t I know always I came from great people?” The greatness is relative: Katie (Wrenn Schmidt) is a servant, born out of wedlock. Her mother was the village beauty, and her father the lord of the local manor house—where his wife and legitimate children were already ensconced.

Katie doesn’t let the stigma of illegitimacy, or much else, stand in her way. Though steeped in piety and moral scruple, she lives in a rush of impulses, regretting them only when their consequences hit home. She shares this heedlessness with the heroines of Deevy’s other fascinating plays from that time (Katie Roche, not seen here since 1937, is the third the Mint has produced). The results, for her, are less tragic but equally disquieting. Thinking that her looks and her “grand” paternity grant her some unspoken privilege, she cultivates her attraction to two men at once, a good-looking youngster (Jon Fletcher), and her employer, an architect (Patrick Fitzgerald) and aging bachelor who, spoiled by his doting elder sister (Margaret Daly), has a peremptory impulsiveness of his own.

In this class-stratified, convention-bound, gossipy village setting, Katie’s impetuousness breeds embarrassing entanglements. The shadow of farce hovers—there’s even a scene with one suitor hidden behind the drapes—but this playwright’s distinctive tone never descends into such crudities. Deaf from an ailment in adolescence, Deevy (1894-1963) became theater-struck while learning to lip-read; clearly, performances of Ibsen, Shaw, and Chekhov taught her psychology as well as dramaturgy. No action in a Deevy play, however comical, occurs without a sense of its inner pain; winds of troubling ambiguity whip the seemingly placid lake of the Irish village life she depicts.

Jonathan Bank’s production lays out the action of Katie Roche cleanly and quietly; the low-key tone seems apt for Deevy’s unassuming quality, letting her sharp dramatic twists leap up with startling unexpectedness. Schmidt’s blurry diction bothers me, but her sweetly endearing vulnerability compensates by allowing you to read the heroine’s feelings at every moment, without any signaling or underlining. Fitzgerald, warmly grave, balances her elegantly, while Daly’s spinster makes a comically asymmetrical, almost vaudevillian duo with Fiona Toibin, as the haughty younger sister whose marriage gives her, in her own mind, a social standing superior to both her unmarried siblings.

Notions of social standing, though expressed in rowdier tones, also snarl relationships in the Irish village where Donnybrook! is set. Based on Maurice Walsh’s short story “The Quiet Man” (best remembered now from John Ford’s 1952 film version), the 1961 Broadway musical adaptation, with a so-so script by Robert E. McEnroe, was a flop. But it left behind a cast album cherished by aficionados for several of songwriter Johnny Burke’s winsome tunes, mainly those that fuel its subsidiary comic romance between a rich widow (Kathy Fitzgerald) and the double-dealing local matchmaker (Samuel Cohen), like the rollicking duet, “I Wouldn’t Bet One Penny” and the sardonic “Sad Was the Day,” in which the widow cheerfully laments her brutish husband’s demise.

These characters tend to overshadow Donnybrook!‘s main plot, which deals with the efforts of Sean Enright (James Barbour), an Irish-American prizefighter, to keep his vow of nonviolence after retiring from the ring, where his championship bout (like the one in Odets’s Golden Boy) led to his opponent’s death. Like Yeats, Enright searches for peace in Innisfree. He reckons without the locals’ love for a rousing shindy, celebrated in the title song. Then, with theatrical inevitability, he is instantly smitten with Mary Kate (Jenny Powers), the tough-minded sister of Will Danaher (Ted Koch), the area’s roughest brawler and landowner. In charmingly predictable due course, Enright breaks his oath long enough to tame his non-shrew and deck his pugnacious brother-in-law, so that everyone can live happily ever after, with only mild abrasions.

Charlotte Moore’s scaled-down, touched-up revival, its score augmented with two somewhat familiar movie songs by Burke and his Hollywood writing partner Jimmy Van Heusen (not Irish, but a handy guy with a melody), keeps this silliness moving pleasantly enough, though leaving the sources of its original failure plainly visible. Never quite authentically Irish, yet never wholly Broadwayized, the show bears its own queasy identity crisis, its material wobbling in quality to match its uncertainty of tone. Still, Barbour sings handsomely, Powers is spunkily sweet, and Fitzgerald and Cohen handle their comedy appealingly enough, though they’ll never efface the vivacity that emanates from Susan Johnson and Eddie Foy Jr. on the original cast recording.

Lone (Yuekun Wu), the hero of David Henry Hwang’s 1981 two-character drama, The Dance and the Railroad, is another troubled soul seeking a peaceful place in which to sort out his conflicting identities. One of the Chinese laborers lured here to build, under brutal conditions, the transcontinental railroad, Lone is a Beijing opera trainee, ripped away from his art to grub dollars for his impoverished kinfolk. When the work gang goes on strike for better hours, Lone’s coworkers, whom he scorns as “insects,” sleep, smoke opium, or shoot dice; he sneaks up the mountain they’re chipping away at (stunningly evoked by Mimi Lien’s abstract set) to practice his opera moves.

Lone’s isolation, and his assumed superiority, are challenged by the advent of Ma (Ruy Iskandar), the new guy on the work gang. A crazily undisciplined mix of daydreams old and new, Ma wants to be both a Beijing opera star and a millionaire here in “gold mountain” America; he encapsulates the cultural confusions of all ethnic-minority kids. Yet his determination and his idealism have something to teach Lone. Nobody can have an identity in isolation, and in this wacky nation of immigrants, all identities get confused.

May Adrales’s elegant, spare, beautifully visualized production gives Hwang’s cunningly economical play a poetic feel, without scanting its underlying anguish. Both actors do well; their silences, abetted by Jiyoun Chang’s quietly articulate lights, do a lot of the talking. Wu’s intense impassivity as he rehearses his stylized motions (presumably choreographed by “Chinese opera consultant” Qian Yi) is particularly riveting.