STOCKBRIDGE — I've always been a great believer in less being more. There are those times, however, when less is simply, well, less. Case in point: director Karen Allen's production of John Patrick Shanley's "Outside Mullingar" at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre through July 13.
It's an oddly crafted, unevenly written play set primarily in the kitchen of a family cattle and sheep farm outside Killucan in Ireland. The farm is owned by Tony Reilly (an appropriately crusty Jeffrey DeMunn), a widower in his mid-70s who is keenly aware of mortality as he considers what to do with the farm once he passes. The natural heir would be his fortysomething son, Anthony (a far-too-withdrawn James McMenamin), who has been deeply wounded in love — outright rejected by the love of his life, a woman named Fiona, who literally ran from him and is now living in a nearby town with her husband and their three children.
Anthony is drawn to more "modern" methods of farming. He tends the farm dutifully but, like so much in the rest of his life, there is a kind of disassociation, which his father senses. In one of their grumbling discussions, Tony snarls at Anthony that, while he has handled the farm efficiently, he doesn't love the farm, the earth. What is more, Tony asserts, his son is more Kelly, Tony's late wife's family, than he is Reilly. Tony acknowledges to his lifelong neighbor Aiofe Muldoon (Deborah Hedwall) — who, along with her daughter, Rosemary (a wonderfully earthy, robust Shannon Marie Sullivan) owns an adjoining family farm — that he is seriously considering leaving the farm to his American nephew, Adam. Lying in the way of any sale, however, is a small patch of land that blocks the Reillys' direct access to the main road, forcing the Reillys to detour through two gates. The patch is owned, it turns out, by Rosemary, who, for reasons we will learn in the play's final scene, steadfastly refuses to sell it.
There is a good deal in "Outside Mullingar" about legacy, family, the obligations we have to each other in familial relationships; fathers and sons; mothers and daughters. The play is about standing up for one's self; about finding the courage not only to determine what it is you want in love but also fashioning ways to get it.
At its heart, "Outside Mullingar" is a love story about two essentially lonely people, Anthony and Rosemary, who should be together.
At some instinctive level, we should taste the inevitability of it, but McMenamin, in a performance that takes Anthony's shyness and withdrawal far too literally, offers very little to cheer for. McMenamin's is a performance of missed opportunities, particularly in an emotionally complicated scene with his bedridden father, who is trying to move the two of them toward some kind of reconciliation before he dies. Instead, it's a scene that, like just about everything else that has come before, passes without any underlying sense of moment.
Allen's static staging on John McDermott's far too spacious, darkly lit (by Shawn Boyle), albeit versatile set is emblematic of stasis at the production's foundation. There is very little in the playing throughout that reaches out beyond the edges of the Unicorn Theatre stage. The pacing and rhythm are slow, deliberate. cautious. Despuite shortcomiongs in the writing, "Outside Mullingar" is a funnier, warmer play than Allen's caught-in-the-shadows treatment would suggest. Gentleness, quiet, firmness, restraint are one thing; outright retreat is quite another.
The production's life force pulses through the veins of Shannon Marie Sullivan, who paints Rosemary from a palette rich with emotional color and hue. Her Rosemary is a force to be reckoned with. She is headstrong, smart, clever, resourceful, very much her own person; clear about what she wants, especially when it comes to Anthony; frustrated when she can't get it until, finally, throwing all caution to the wind and just going for it when she finally succeeds in getting Anthony into her house for the first time in the lifetime they have known each other. It's a breathtaking scene as Rosemary fights her own vulnerabilities. She lets Anthony know in no uncertain terms that, unlike Fiona, she is more than willing to accept him, love him, on his own terms; for who he is; for the man she knows will emerge with her love.
Much to his credit, McMenamin stirs to this occasion, touching an emotional authenticity he has missed earlier on. For her part, Sullivan is on the mark throughout in a performance that builds perfectly to the play's climactic scene. In an intermissionless, generally plodding evening, this is a long time coming. It's one of those cases when more truly is more.