Keeping Up with the Conlee’s
by Pittsburgh Stage Magazine
I’ve seen quite a few Irish plays in my time that have been set inside little cottages or one room inside an old house. The walls look the same, as do the doors and decor, there’s usually an implied ceiling. That’s not a criticism on any scene design or on Irish plays. These houses may look similar but the action inside is what sets them apart. And there are many things happening in Sharon’s Grave, currently being presented by PICT.
At the start a wandering thatcher named Peadar (Byron Anthony) enters the quiet home of the Conlee’s. Trassie Conlee (Karen Baum) is a hard-working woman who really has her hands full. Her father (John Henry Steelman) sleeps nearby, slowly dying. Her brother Neelus (Alec Silberblatt) is sweet but simple, and often speaks about mythology that he believes is true. Their cousin Dinzie (James Fitzgerald) is an angry and crippled schemer who is trying to take their house and land away from them. There are many things to observe inside those quaint rustic walls. Each of the characters have strong personalities that clash, and are all wonderfully brought to life by strong performances.
Karen Baum is a strong family pillar as Trassie. She’s tough, hard-working, doesn’t take any flack, and loves her father and brother dearly. This life has left her a bit isolated from the world, but her loneliness is lessened by the arrival of Peader, played with good “quiet stranger” charm by Mr. Anthony. Mr. Silberblatt is precious as the sweet fool Neelus, who is a victim of bullying from his cousins but still retains a pure heart.
James Fitzgerald is simply fantastic as Dinzie. It’s hard to think that a cripple with a hunchback could strike fear into your heart but that’s exactly what happens when he’s onstage. Dinzie is a bully to everyone, and easily manipulates his brother Jack (J. Alex Noble) into carrying him around and doing his dirty work. Dinzie is angry and resentful at the world for all his struggles, and Mr. Fitzgerald captures all those feelings, bottles them up, and pours them out onstage. Dinzie is a jerk, but the script and the acting makes him a real person who you almost feel sorry for.
What I love about plays like this is they can’t really be categorized into “comedy” or “drama” when you try to describe them. The play has laughs, for sure, but there’s no schtick or cheap jokes. Sharon Brady and Jill Keating play two visiting neighbors who score plenty of laughs in their one scene in the house. Other characters can go from humorous to terrifying in a matter of minutes, and things can become tense quickly. Martin Giles’ doctor character in Act 2 is a perfect example of that, boisterous and cocky but then startling scary.
Sharon’s Grave is ultimately a collection of stories. There is a big story being acted out, but many personal stories are being told through dialogue or relationships between characters. While many older straight plays don’t require much in terms of tech, I remember really liking the sound design that aided the play and I will always appreciate a well-choreographed scene change. PICT will be moving to new location(s) in the new year, so go check out their wonderful production in the intimate Henry Heymann Theatre in Oakland while you can.