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A CurtainUp Review

The Country Boy

I had a plan, but then one day the plan wasn't there any more -- Eddie the country boy turned "Yank" who has become convinced that a lot of country boys, like his younger brother, "are better off staying where they are""

John Murphy, the author of this leisurely paced play was himself a country boy from County Mayo. Unlike Eddie (Ciarán O'Reilly) whose return visit to the family homestead after fifteen years in America is overhung by a cloud of despair over his misplaced plans, Mr. Murphy did go home again. What's more, the perspective gained as an emigrant drawn back to rural Irish life became part of The Country Boy. Now, two years after his death and forty-one years after the play was first produced at Dublin's Abbey Theater, the Irish Rep's artistic director Charlotte Moore has given it a loving and faithful to detail revival.

It's a quiet, old-fashioned play. Mugs are forever being filled from the kettle on the four burner yellow and green stove. Like the water for the tea, repressed feelings between brothers, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, simmer and come to a boil. Of the six characters whose lives are on display in that cozy farm kitchen all except Eddie's New York born wife, Julia (Valorie Hubbard, are Irish to the core. You've met them or people like them before, if not personally, in books or plays or movies.

The plot Mr. Murphy has woven out of their lives is bookended by Eddie and Julia's arrival and departure and holds no surprises. The family thinks Eddie has realized his dream of a better life in America. His long overdue return visit comes as history is about to repeat itself through the planned emigration of his younger brother Curly (Dara Coleman). Yet, familiar as it all sounds, the drama of emigration resonates strong as ever in a world where more people than ever are constantly moving away from their homelands. And you don't have to be Irish to sympathize with those who leave home and those who remain behind.

The rewards from a play like this come from the performances and the almost slow-motion unraveling of the tensions beneath the daily occurences inside the Maher kitchen and in the unseen barn and surrounding houses. Happily the Ms. Moore has assembled cast rises to the challenge.

Ciaran O'Reilly's Eddie dominates the story with persuasive intensity. You know almost instantly that there's more than nostalgia driving his eagerness to once again taste the simple pleasures of the life he left behind. And you feel his pain when the whiskey bottle in the kitchen cupboard finally gets the better of him.

Valerie Hubbard, while seemingly miscast as his wife in the first act, comes into her own during the big second act confrontation with Eddie when the festering sores in their marriage are finally exposed.

James A. Stephens adds some much needed humor as the emotionally repressed, tightfisted father who's controlling ways have prompted his younger son to follow in his brother's footsteps, forsaking his sweetheart (Heather O'Neill). It's Eddie's determination to keep Curly from following in his footsteps, with a little Irish plain talk from Mother Maher (Aileen O'Kelly) that finally brings an at least partially happy resolution.

To punctuate the various strands of the story there's a disagreement over what color to paint the outhouse and a thunderstorm to echo the interpersonal storms and the tragic fate of Eddie's married and about to give birth former sweetheart. It's not Eugene O'Neill or Brian Friel but more like spending a few hours looking at a well-thumbed old family album.

By John Murphy
Directed by Charlotte Moore
With: Dara Coleman, Valorie Hubbard, Aideen O'Kelly, Heather O'Neill, Ciaran O'Reilly, James A. Stephens
Set Design: David Raphel
Lighting Design: Gregory Cohen
Costume Design: David Toser
Sound Design: Murmod, Inc.
Running time: 2 hours and 5 minutes, including one intermission 2/22/2000-4/02/2000; opening 3/01/2000 Irish Repertory, 132 W. 22d St. (6th/7th Avs), 727-2737

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/27 performance

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