Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wife to James Whelan

Photo/Sara Krulwich

Teresa Deevy's Wife to James Whelan is an extravagantly simple play; perhaps that's why it was turned down by Ireland's Abbey Theater in 1942. The characters are richly drawn and full of spark, but much of the drama happens to them in the seven-year-intermission between Act I and Act II. What remains on stage is an exacting character piece that looks at the twinned paths of two former lovers. James Whelan (Shawn Fagan), who was once an eager, talkative boy, has hardened himself into a business man, frowning upon the energetic youth of his employee, Apollo (Jon Fletcher), and scorning the advice of his best friend, Kate (Rosie Benton), who urges him to be married, and his concerned colleague, Tom Carey (Aidan Remond), who wants their company to do well. Meanwhile, the spirited Nan Bowers (Janie Brookshire) who broke James's heart--she's hardened for different reasons. A widow with a baby has no time to mourn her husband (Thomas Matthew Kelley) nor the ability to deal with untoward men like Bill McGafferty (Jeremy S. Holm). Such material may have hit a too-familiar nerve back then; it is now yet another polished gem for the Mint Theater to display.

Make no mistake, however: that "gem" has been polished by the hard-working cast, specifically Brookshire, who delivers volumes of information simply by the difference in how she sits. In Act I, she cuts right through Bill's braggadocio as she stretches out on the center of a bench, taking up every breath of air in the room with her nonchalance (which extends to her untied shoes). "Am I being asked to make more room?" asks Bill. "You're being asked nothing," she replies, and it's the lightest demand you'll ever hear. In Act II, she's all but swallowed up by an office chair as she waits to beg Whelan for work, diminished by her shrouds, and pulled into herself. Things grow worse for her after Whelan catches her stealing from him: he can't bring himself to forgive her a second time--for again disappointing his unreasonable expectations for her--and he sends her to prison, unwilling to be swayed by her heartbreakingly simple plea: "The child, Mr. Whelan...." By Act III, she's now literally stooped, reduced to scrubbing floors--but even when she stands, her eyes bend to the floor, her steps are dead things where once they had spring.

Jonathan Bank works wonders with realism, so much that his direction uses the dramatically bland portions of the play to sharpen the better-written scenes. (Just look at how he uses that plain wood, brick, and stone set of Vicki R. Davis's to such transporting effect.) On her own, Nora Keane (Liv Rooth) is a cloying suitor, able to lend only her stature to Whelan's life. But as contrast for Nan, or as a physical example of what spinster Kate's suggestions for a plain, respectably married life entail, they work wonders. Apollo's comic attitude is at odds with Whelan's attitude, but that aimless writing makes for a lovely mirror; look how much Whelan has unfortunately grown up. The one exception is the quickly resolved ending, which begs for an Act IV. Then again, given how well Deevy and the Mint have sketched out these lives, we might just as easily imagine it.

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