Coal Creek Theater’s humorous, passionate production proves love triumphs

The quirky, but charming, Outside Mullingar weaves the lyrical wit and poetic passion of the rural Irish countryside with a classic rom-com storyline. At times it almost feels that you’re listening to a poetry reading instead of live theater — which is why it’s possible to forgive the predictable plot contrivances and inevitable ending.

Outside Mullingar was written by contemporary playwright John Patrick Shanley, who received both a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for the play, Doubt, as well as a screenplay Oscar for the film, Moonstruck. He strikes a more moderate note with Outside Mullingar, a soft-hearted comedy fortified throughout with dark reflections on the nature of life and death, as well as the vagaries of love. The witty dialogue and authentic characters punch through the gloom of both the surrounding Irish countryside and the mournful dispositions of the inhabitants.

The real heart of the play is the authentic depth and voices Shanley gives to familiar characters: the lonely, single farmer; the willful, spunky girl-next-door; and the forthright, dry-humored elders. With only four characters, all eccentric in their own way, each actor carries a heavy burden to remain compassionate and approachable despite their bluster and bluff.

Coal Creek Theater production of Outside Mullingar may falter a bit with staging, but the cast brings home the humor, passion and warmth of the play. Director Dan Schock deserves kudos for staging the production in a challenging space.

Irish countryside

The play is set in rural Ireland outside of Killucan, where cattle and sheep farmers work the family fields. It focuses on two neighboring farms, owned by the Muldoons and the Reillys. The play centers around the introverted and eccentric single children of the elderly owners. Anthony Reilly has spent his entire life working on the family farm and can’t see any other way of life. Feisty Rosemary Muldoon lives right next door, secretly yearning to be with him while wearily watching the years slip away.

With Anthony’s father threatening to disinherit him and a land feud simmering between their families, Rosemary frantically works to ensure Anthony keeps the farm. It’s not in her to give up without a fight — for the farm and for Anthony. The final scene where Anthony and Rosemary finally connect in spite of their hesitations and quirks is not only heartwarming, but also believable thanks to a well-crafted script.

Challenging roles

Amy Sonnanstine plays the sometimes brittle but well-meaning Rosemary Muldoon. One of her best lines is when she informs stubborn Tony: “You might as well try to stop the calendar from naming the days. I’ve been older than all of you since I was born, and sure I ache for my own youth.” It’s a challenging character and Sonnanstine manages to show the passion and emotions behind the brittle exterior, particularly in the last act.

Actor Rob Leary takes on might be the most difficult role with Anthony Reilly, the aloof, and confused younger farmer. Like Sonnanstine, he must convey a range of emotions beyond the actual words that he’s saying, and there were times when he seemed a bit flat.

Although the play revolves around the younger generation, the stars in the Clear Creek Theater production are the two elderly neighbors. Kate Gulliver is outstanding as the widow, Aoife Muldoon. From her authentic-sounding accent to her nuanced expressions, she embodies the vulnerable matriarchal role.

Steve Rausch, does a superb job as Tony Reilly and ensures that the character stays likeable despite his cantankerous and gruff ways. And his tender approach to saying good-bye to his son is touching and authentic.

All four demonstrated remarkably authentic Irish accents, thanks to dialect coach Scotty Shaffer.

Intimate setting

The all-to-often gloomy Irish countryside has such a strong presence in Outside Mullingar that it almost feels like a fifth character. Gloomy, too, is the talk of lost loves, impending deaths, departed ancestors and other grim subjects dear to the hearts of the rural Irish.

The long, narrow space of the Louisville Theater is challenging for set design and the crew made the best to appeal to both ends. But it does mean that you’re very intimate – almost sitting at the kitchen tables – while feeling far afield in others. It also seemed a struggle for the crew to move some of the scenery between acts, which was a bit distracting.

Outside Mullingar is one of three plays, in addition to the Front Range Playwrights’ Showcase in August, that comprises this year’s 30th season, or the Pearl Anniversary, of the Coal Creek Theater of Louisville.