Review: Pict Classic Theater cast brings life to wordy ‘Sharon’s Grave’

By Alice T. Carter, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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A vibrant, talented cast enlivens what would have otherwise been a long, word-filled night of theater.

John B. Keane’s 1960 folk drama “Sharon’s Grave,” Pict Classic Theater’s latest production, intertwines a love story, a melodrama about land ownership and magical realism into an old-fashioned Irish potboiler.

It’s set in a tiny, sparely decorated cottage on a farm overlooking the sea, in the West Country of Ireland near Listowel, County Kerry where Keane owned and ran a pub.

Aged and confined to bed, landowner Donal Conlee, played by John Henry Steelman, is within hours of dying.

His daughter, Trassie, and his son, Neelus, are heirs to the land. But it’s 1925, and Trassie, her greedy male cousins contend, can’t be expected to run the farm.

Brother Neelus is simple and sweet, but not much help. He’s a bit odd and obsessed with an ancient tale of a beautiful woman named Sharon, who was dragged into the sea by her jealous servant.

Cousin Dinzie Conlee is set on getting the cottage so he can attract a wife.

Peadar Minogue, a journeyman thatcher traveling the country in search of odd jobs, arrives at the cottage and is almost instantly attracted to Trassie. Could Peadar be the solution to Trassie’s dilemma?

Keane doesn’t make it quite that simple.

Keane — and most of his characters — fit the Irish stereotype as highly verbal talkers and narrators. For just over two hours and 15 minutes, they regale us with their blather, threats, pleas and gossip as they each pursue their own very clear agendas.

What brings all this to life is a cast that knows how to play big moments with bravado, as well as small moments with intimacy.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find two more loutish and menacing villains than James FitzGerald’s Dinzie Conlee and his slower, but powerful, brother Jack Conlee, played by J. Alex Noble.

Karen Baum’s Trassie shows quiet strength as she withstands her cousin’s verbal threats. She’s a compassionate sister to Neelus, played with affecting simplicity by Alec Silberblatt.

You can see why she’s attracted to Peadar Minogue, into whom actor Byron Anthony injects a proper balance of strength, intelligence and low-key emotion.

But she could put up more forceful defense against Dinzie’s physical attack.

Sharon Brady and Jill Keating create authentic Irish mourners and busybodies as Moll and Miss Dee.

But it’s Martin Giles’ audacious performance that energizes the second act as Pats Bo Bwee, a traveling medicine man-folk healer. All broad gestures and exotic nattering, he generates laughs and increases the stakes with his threat to have Neelus committed to an asylum.

He helps to edge the drama toward its resolution, which is simultaneously unexpected and inevitable.

Director Aoife Spillane-Hinks and her stellar cast drive the action with reality and tension. But you can’t help wondering what they would have done with a better vehicle.

Pict Classic Theater’s “Sharon’s Grave” will run in the Henry Heymann Theatre, lower level of Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland through Aug. 1 at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays and July 29 and 7 p.m. July 21. Admission is $48, $44 for seniors, $20 for ages 30 and younger; $13 for ages 18 and younger. Details: 412-561-6000 or picttheatre.org

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