In one sense, “Sive” is just a quasi-melodramatic Irish tragedy, like a rural “Romeo and Juliet.” But hearing its unexpected passages of dark, poetic passion, you’ll find it’s much more.
John B. Keane (1928-2002) is one of the master Irish playwrights, which means he’s a master of a high sort. Writing out west in County Kerry, he was initially condescended to by the Dublin arts establishment, but late in life his rich, earthy powers rose into favor, where they already had been with audiences.
Written in 1959, it’s one of Keane’s earliest plays, so it’s not surprisingly made up of a pretty stock situation, characters who will seem to Americans on the verge of caricature, and a conflict that has a tragic end written all over it — even though there’s plenty of comedy along the way.
The story is about Sive (rhymes with five), a teenage girl raised by an aunt and uncle who are enticed to sell her into marriage to a well-off farmer of greatly advanced years. Between them, the aunt and uncle run the gamut from loving, passive and ambivalent to angry, frustrated and conniving. Doing the enticing is a skilled and hateful matchmaker.
To these you can add her two suitors, one heart-of-gold, the other ancient, and a goodhearted but whiny, ineffectual grandmother. Then comes the piece de resistance: Pats Bobcock, a tinker or “traveler.” He’s a kind of rootless shaman who lives on the contributions of those he blesses or blasts with the assistance of his bodran-playing son, who sings praises and curses of undoubted force at his father’s direction.
These two mystical scoundrels alone are worth the price of admission and the two-and-a-half hours, especially as played by Martin Giles, adding Pats to his long roster of magnificent eccentrics, and the impressively voiced J. Alex Noble as his son.
But this is not to minimize the richest performance of the night, the matchmaker with the grand name of Thomasheen Sean Rua, whom James FitzGerald adds to his own pretty remarkable roster of rascals. Playwright Keane’s complexity struck me suddenly when one of this villain’s rants dug down to a glittering vein of lonesome self-pity (“What do the likes of us know of love?”), and I realized he was on the verge of a tragic character himself.
You can say the same even for some of the bile spewed by Karen Baum as the aunt, which you come to see as a gut-brewed cry of pain for what she has suffered herself — so why should this damn girl be treated any better?
Even Michael Fuller’s painfully passive uncle, taking his refuge in his animals one moment and porter the next, is more complex than you expect. Through his befuddlement, you see how he avoids responsibility, using others to act out his own failure, preserving a shred of soiled innocence.
So in spite of the traditional gimmicks, even a misdirected letter (think “Romeo and Juliet” again), and some uneven acting, there’s a real play here. And of course the language soars and wheedles and curvets and whines with the skill we admiring Anglo-Americans expect of the Irish. Although “Sive” dramatizes a time (1950) and an impoverished place that we might think long gone, Alan Stanford points out in his director’s note that it really isn’t. Nor is the selling of young women.
Johnmichael Bohach’s set and Joan Markert’s costumes summon up this world. The acting space at the Union Project is intimate, but if you have any trouble hearing an Irish dialect, sit as close as you can.
Remember, PICT began as the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre: “Sive” qualifies as the first of those, of course, but its darkly knowing heart has elements of the other, as well.