Pict Theatre’s ‘Sharon’s Grave’ faces dark battle within us all

by Alice T. Carter, Trib Total Media

Karen Baum, Byron Anthony and Martin Giles. Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons.

Karen Baum, Byron Anthony and Martin Giles. Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons.

The man who wrote Pict Classic Theatre’s next production — “Sharon’s Grave” may be unknown to most Americans. But in Ireland, John B. Keane is famous.

“Keane was one of the most popular and celebrated playwrights in Ireland,” says Aoife Spillane-Hinks, who is directing “Sharon’s Grave” for the company. “He gets done at the Abbey (Theatre in Dublin) and on the amateur circuit. He speaks to you; he makes you laugh. He makes you wonder what’s going to happen.”

Before his death in 2002, Keane wrote 19 plays and several dozen literary works. His play,“The Field,” was made into a 1990 film with Richard Harris and John Hurt.

Like many of his plays, “Sharon’s Grave” is set in the West Country of Ireland near Listowel, County Kerry, where Keane owned and ran a pub. While pulling a pint, he listened to locals as they spun tales of their everyday lives, as well as the folklore of the region. After hours, he sat down at his typewriter to create stories that drew on both worlds.

In “Sharon’s Grave,” Keane places a mystical legend of his own creation at the center of the realistic story about a Kerry woman in 1925, who is trying desperately to hold onto her land after the death of her father.

“For all his later reputation as a recorder of the everyday, for all his image as a comfortable mainstream figure, Keane was at his most electric when he was connecting with a mythic world of grotesque forces and wild imaginings,” wrote Irish theater critic Fintan O’Toole in Keane’s obituary for the Irish Times. “What made him a genuine folk dramatist was his refusal to take on face value the notion that Irish country people were simple, devout creatures. He imagined their world as an almost-medieval one, in which the forces of darkness and of light, the devils and the angels, were at war.”

The action of “Sharon’s Grave” focuses on Trassie Conlee and her efforts to keep possession of the family farm while fighting off the ambitions of her unscrupulous cousins, Jack and Dinzie Conlee. Intertwined with that story is a budding relationship between Trassie and a traveling thatcher of roofs, plus her brother Neelus’s fascination with Sharon, a mythic pagan princess, and her evil servant, Shiofra.

“You’ve got a love story, a battle for land and a mythic yarn, but you’ve also got these people who are living on the edge of their world and incredibly high stakes,” Spillane-Hinks says. “Every single person has a reason for what they do. Keane gives every character a chance to speak to that question: What would you do?”

The Pict production will be performed in the intimate Henry Heymann Theatre on the lower level of the Stephen Foster Memorial in Oakland. With a thrust stage surrounded on three sides by a mere 153 seats, Spillane-Hinks says it’s a supportive setting for this play.

There’s a subtlety and nuance to the way Irish people communicate. They use or avoid eye contact, and employ simple hand gestures or body postures to express themselves in a way that speaks volumes, she explains. The Heymann Theatre allows audiences to read those tell-tale clues for themselves.

“The fundamental thing of theater is people watching people onstage,” Spillane-Hinks says. “Feeling two people engaging in a battle of wits and wills onstage makes us want to know what’s next.”

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Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808,acarter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.