Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Theatre review: "The Lonesome West" at The Rep/Pittsburgh Playhouse

The Lonesome West may sound like a title for a play where vast sweeps of mountains frame a solitary horseback rider or tower over bent, dusty people scratching away at unforgiving soil trying to eke out a living.

This is not about that atall. No, not that atall. The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse presents something about a few souls in western Ireland, near the rugged coast. Mainly two fractious brothers Coleman and Valene Connor. Loneliness never comes up. They don’t even give it a second thought. They don’t give much of anything a thought except how to provoke each other, ready to knock down and pummel, pull a knife, fire a rifle.

Well now, you could find these encounters loads of fun, feeling immersed in a colorful alien form of life. Yet a sad, sweet, confused priest stumbles in and out bringing enough sorrow to point out that existence in this fraction of the world is not a bowl of cheery, nourishing oatmeal. Glory be, the acting gives it depth and fervor. And you get a solid sense of immersion in something memorably real.

You ask what playwright Martin McDonagh is fundamentally trying to tell us with that title? I haven’t a clue. This looks mostly comic. But as to what the dialogue was trying to say behind that, I haven’t a wisp of an idea. I had trouble stumbling through the thickness of noisy, regional accents and their dialect t’other night at Pittsburgh Playhouse. Not that I was alone in that fog. Except for a claque of eager Point Park students around me, few other people in the audience seemed to be in on the verbal fun. Not that we had to understand every wee ficking word. We could tell what was happening. Clearly this is not Bernard Shaw prodding and pushing intricately worded provocative social comment. The plot? Not that complicated.

McDonagh can amuse you greatly, but he also reminds us that such people struggle with the truths of an unrelenting environment. Don’t, then, anticipate the riotous blood and gore of his The Lieutenant of Inishmore or the movie In Bruges. Don’t expect lurking horror, casting ironic shadows on cruel, oppressive regimes as in The Pillowman. This is lighter.

Dave Droxler stands out as the most complex character, the young Father Welsh who tries to be a meaningful part of this community but remains out of place. Droxler brings out the true dimensions of vulnerability, human weakness and need. Philip Winters’ take on Coleman always looks solid and real, although perhaps not as dim-witted as you’d think the man is. Valene is played by David Cabot, looking as if he’s trying to physically and verbally establish someone more complex than what’s behind anything Valene does or says. Director Kim Martin should have tried to get Cabot to blend in more with other people’s more realistic style.

Martin keeps the whole thing moving vigorously, adding to a sense that these are not caricatures, aided by fight director Randy Kovitz and a few special effects from Steve Tolin.

I question, however, why Martin or other directors in these parts of the US feel that their casts have to do their damndest to speak accurately like people whose language and accents are so far removed from our own that we may have trouble understanding them. This happened before with The Rep’s own production of Mojo by Jez Butterworth when Cockney words and sounds remained so dense it was almost impossible to tell what was actually being said. It happens often in productions by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. Burying the essence of the text in needless authenticity does not serve the playwright well. At such times, when I look at many other people in the audience and see their blank expressions, their solemnity during presumably funny moments I know I’m not alone in puzzlement. You’d think directors could see this too.

The Lonesome West continues through February 27th at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/621-4445

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