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A CurtainUp Review

The Colleen Bawn

Why can't I suffer for yez, masther dear? Wouldn't I swally every tear in your body, and every bit of bad luck in your life, and then wid a stone round my neck, sink myself and your sorrows in the bottom of the lower lake
--- Danny, summing up the blind loyalty that has endured, if not become stronger, since the object of his devotion, the aristocratic Hardress Cregan, caused an accident that left him a crippled hunchback.
2 colleens
Laura James Flynn as Anne Chute & Heather O'Neill as Eily O'Connor (Photo: Carol Rosegg )
The Irish Rep, that venerable New York custodian of Irish theatrical treasures, is following up its earlier mounting of Dion Boucicault's The Streets of New York, with another of his big "hits" on both sides of the Atlantic -- The Colleen Bawn also known as The Brides of Garryown. It was written by the prolific playwright-producer-actor in 1860 for the actress Laura Keene who played the feisty heiress Anne Chute while Boucicault took on the role of the melodrama's scoundrel and hero, Myles-na-Coppaleen.

As with Streets of New York this isn't a case of a revival seeking to unearth timely meanings in an old play. Instead director Charlotte Moore is once again out to prove that you can spark up a rickety melodrama with an authentic production and a few fresh theatrical tricks.

Moore's trick is to use an Irish traveling or "fit-up"show as a frame for the landowners, bureaucrats, and peasants who figure in the ups and downs of the clandestine marriage of Eily O'Connor, the Colleen Bawn, and the son of an impoverished landowner, Hardress Cregan. Thanks to James Morgan's handsome set, and a congenial cast who have a strong grasp on the accents the show-within-a-show conceit works reasonably well. Morgan has angled the play-within-a-play proscenium for easy viewing by the audience sitting in the theater's side section (though Ms. Moore does little to encourage the actors to play to this audience segment). He has also transformed a structural deficit -- a cumbersome on stage pole -- into a handsome tree. With a strong assist from lighting designer Brian Nason and sound designer Zachary Williamson, Morgan and Moore have even managed a believable stormy bridge crossing and boat scene on the hankerchief-sized stage. It's worth noting that the original production's use of mechanical devices was the first to upstage the actors and contributed in no small measure to its success. George Bernard Shaw who thought the 1896 revival that used real wate went too far and destroyed the illusion, would have been happier with the current revival's simpler technique of creating a stormy river with undulating fabrics manipulated by some of the actors.

The complicated interwoven plot is peopled with characters from all strata of the nineteenth century County Cavan's populace. The marriage between Hardress Cregan (Declan Mooney) and Eily O'Connor (Heather O'Neill) that must be kept secret until the groom's snobbish mother can be brought around to accept the simple, uneducated peasant girl results in thirteen scenes filled with complications and misunderstandings: a marriage proposal to Mama Cregan (Caroline Winterson) that smacks of blackmail, a scheme to murder the lovely Eily, and a change of heart on the part of the groom.

Nostalgia fans will relish this return to a style in which goodness triumphs and even the ill-intentioned characters are not so villainous that they can't believably mend their ways. They won't let more modern sensibilities keep them from accepting the sappy goodness of its leading lady and the slave-like devotion of Danny Mann (Ciaran O'Reilly).

The entire eleven-member ensemble gets into the sin, suffer and repent spirit and the often winking asides to the audience that drive the story towards its inevitably happy ending. Given the adoring loyalty he inspires in his servant and erstwhile foster brother and in the fair Eileen, Declan Mooney's Hardness Cregan falls a bit short of the required charisma. Paul Vincent Black, a standout as the bootlegger Myles-na-Coppaleen, might have been a better choice to play Cregan. Heather O'Neill, while at times a tad shrill, is physically well suited to the role of the fair Eily. Typical of other plays from this company, some of the best acting comes from the actors playing supporting roles; notably Irish Reph regular, Terry Donnelly as the unfortunate Danny Mann's mother Sheelah and John Keating as Father Tom.

Linda Fischer has tapped several collections for the colorful and historically accurate costumes with some truly eye-popping gowns for the ladies. Though Streets of New York was musically richer (and a more generally satisfying resuscitation of the once popular Boucicault's work) , music is very much part of Colleen Bawn. Besides a strolling fiddler (James Cleveland), there are periodic bursts of songs from various cast members. There's even a merry dance by the whole company to serve as the ribbon to tie up the loose ends of this revival which is worth seeing mainly as an example of a long buried theatrical style.

London Assurance
The Streets of New York

Written by Dian Boucicault
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Cast: Paul Vincent Black, James Cleveland, Terry Donnelly, Laura James Flynn, George Heslin, John Keating, Colin Lane, Declan Mooney, Heather O'Neill, Ciaran O'Reilly and Caroline Winterson.
Set Design: James Morgan
Costume Design: Linda Fisher
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Sound Design: Zachary Williamson
Running time: 2 hours, includes one intermission
Irish Rep, 132 W. 22nd St. (212) 727-2737
10/10/03 to 11/30/03; opening 10/19/03.
Wed through Sat @8pm; Wed matinees at 2pm, Sat & Sun matinees @3pm -- $40 and $45.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance

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