Rarely do you hear an audience collectively “awwww” at the sweetness of a scene and its oddly endearing characters, but that’s exactly what happened on opening night of the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s delightful production of OUTSIDE MULLINGAR. John Patrick Shanley’s rom-com charmer, which debuted on Broadway in January, is a play about feelings, expressed with a specifically Irish lilt by two generations of neighbors on adjacent farms in the contemporary Midlands of the Emerald Isle (ancestral home to the Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright). Aoife Muldoon (Beth Dixon) and Tony Reilly (David Howey) are the widowed elders, who converse about their late spouses, their own impending deaths, their 30-year feud over a strip of land, and their slightly “cracked” unmarried adult children Rosemary Muldoon (Kathleen McNenny) and Anthony Reilly (Anthony Lawton). Both daughter and son still live with and care for their respective parents and familial properties, and nurse their own long-term dysfunctional relationship.
Shanley’s script is funny and poignant and poetic, as the combative protagonists—people who “don’t know how to be happy”–discuss the predictable Irish topics of death, loneliness, depression, and regret with dark humor and laughable negativity. But they also reveal their sentimental connections to nature and to each other, as they come to accept the undeniable common ground, history, and faith they share, and at long-last recognize the (somewhat less miserable!) life they could have together by letting down their defenses, dropping their decades-old grudges, and opening up their hearts.
Mary B. Robinson’s direction is buoyant and touching, and her cast is absolutely splendid, capturing the emotions, exposing the motivations, and delivering the dialogue of the cantankerous foursome with spot-on accents (honed by dialect coach Melanie Julian). The show’s appealing design is also top-notch, with sturdy Irish costumes (Janus Stefanowicz), well-modulated sound and music (Christopher Colucci), a clever set (Jason Simms) that takes us from the fields to the kitchens of the bickering families, and atmospheric lighting (Dennis Parichy) that changes with the weather and reflects the characters’ increasingly sunny moods. [Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St.] November 28-December 28, 2014; PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.