Stage review: Battle of good vs. evil plays out in family feud within ‘Sharon’s Grave’

By Christopher Rawson,Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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In the program for “Sharon’s Grave,” PICT Classic Theatre prints “Epic,” a sonnet by Patrick Kavanagh that contrasts village tussles with history’s great events, and finds them all made of common humanity. That a sonnet can be epic says much the same.

So does “The Field,” the only play (adapted into a film) that most Americans know by one of Ireland’s most prolific, popular authors, John B. Keane (1928-2002) — who, to follow our theme, spent much of his life tending bar in his own pub in County Kerry, listening to talk of both local squabbles and the news of the world.

And so does his “Sharon’s Grave,” set in Ireland’s wild west in the 1920s, framing a familiar story of local love, jealousy and lust for land with an ancient legend, opening the mundane up to the eternal.

That’s the story of the play, but what raises it to a higher level is its lyricism. If it seems familiar, it’s not just its archetypal story, but also its deep well of language, reminiscent of J.M. Synge and other Irish spellbinders. Of course, it’s also replete with those country aphorisms that can suggest willful primitivism.

But on top of story and language, what really sets “Sharon’s Grave” apart is one of the most extraordinary characters you’ll ever meet, Dinzie Conlee, a villain of monstrous dimensions.

Crumpled in body, Dinzie can call upon sympathy; voracious to command, he terrifies.

Pitiable and contemptible, wheedling and domineering, laughable and demonic, this near-tragic villain is a bravura role that James FitzGerald fills to the brim with seduction and bile. I shouldn’t wonder that PICT chose to do the play primarily because Mr. FitzGerald was available to play it.

The object of Dinzie’s full-bore desire is the house and land of his cousin, Trassie, played by Karen Baum, whose father is dying. She holds firm, but such are Dinzie’s powers, she can’t shake him off, and we don’t know just how far he will go.

The playwright doesn’t exhaust his invention with the monstrous Dinzie. He also gives us Pats Bo Bwee, a spellbinding rural healer/con man, played with sumptuous flourish and self-conceit by Martin Giles in full flower. More sympathetically, there’s Trassie’s mentally off-center brother, Neelus, whom Alec Silberblatt plays without ever sliding into the maudlin. Rounding out this vivid array is Dinzie’s brother, Jack, who carries the cripple about, playing thoughtless body to Dinzie’s controlling mind.

Countering the assaults of Dinzie and Pats Bo Bwee is the indispensable central couple of Trassie and Peader Minogue, a soulful itinerant thatcher played by Byron Anthony. In the play’s simple dichotomy, it falls to them and Neelus to stand up for innocence and good against evil. In their wary courtship, the duo is best in restraint and nuance, saved from being pallid by an explosion of pent-up doubt and longing.

This really doesn’t give anything away: you know it’s coming, Keane is canny enough to give his audience at least some of what it wants. But he never makes it clear why the itinerant suddenly wants to settle down, unless it’s the assault on Trassie that really sparks his love.

As to the play’s ending, it may be a surprise, but you will immediately see how fitting it is. Just think back to Neelus’ magnificent account of Sharon’s legend.

As to that juxtaposition of the mundane and the eternal, the simple farm cottage set by Johnmichael Bohach is one we’ve seen before, but here it’s enhanced by Liz Atkinson’s sound design, an encompassing music of seabirds and pounding surf — the simple embraced by larger spheres of geography and time.

Aoife Spillane-Hinks directs, balancing evil and good with as much delicacy as the play allows. Whatever her knowledge of the Irish southwest, though, the deeply Irish edge of “Sharon’s Grave” must elude or at least stretch an American audience. But surely this play is a reason we are gratified to have PICT among us.

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