nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 28, 2006
Irish Repertory Theatre's production of John B. Keane's The Field is superb: a gripping story, sharply and tautly staged and spellbindingly acted by a first-rate cast. Keane's plot is fascinating, but it's more as a study of a small Irish town and the people living in it that this piece resonates. Several of the dozen actors occupy their roles with such passion and commitment that you'd think they were born to play them—they render Keane's rugged creations in vivid, raw detail.
Take Marty Maguire, for example, who portrays "The Bull" McCabe, a tough-minded farmer who watches over what he has and who knows what's his. One of the things that he's certain of among his possessions is a 400-acre field that he's been grazing his cattle on for the past several years. It legally belongs to an old widow named Maggie Butler, but The Bull's sense of entitlement is firm and unwavering. When Mrs. Butler decides she needs to sell this parcel of land in order to supplement her meager old-age pension, The Bull is ready to resort to any means necessary to prevent any usurper from grabbing "his" field (and he's prepared to pay the widow the "fair" price of £200 for it, even though she's asking four times that).
The Bull is a bully but not necessarily a coward, and Maguire shows us how that can be possible in a performance that's so organic and natural that it's difficult to imagine anyone else embodying this simple, tenacious man: Maguire makes him a force of nature, plain and simple. We get under his thick, tough skin only once, when he confides in his son about why his wife hasn't slept with (or even spoken to) him in years: we discover a hint of sadness and even a hint of remorse but mostly fatalistic resignation—this is a man who understands what his lot in life is ordained to be, and he's unwilling to let even a centimeter of the turf the fates have granted him get away.
But of course someone does try to buy The Bull's field—a stranger named William Dee, who has come from England to find a suitable location for his concrete business and decides this bit of land will do nicely. Dee has money and resolve, but he's not really prepared for the depths of The Bull's commitment to his homestead. Their confrontation turns ugly and violent, propelling the play towards a surprising and uncompromising conclusion.
Along the way, many of the denizens of this small Irish community wind up embroiled in The Bull's conflict, among them his wary son Tadhg (Tim Ruddy); a bombastic relative, Dandy McCabe (John O'Creogh); a slippery ne'er-do-well called The Bird O'Donnell (Ken Jennings); the local parish priest, Father Murphy (Craig Baldwin); the town constable Sergeant Leahy (Laurence Lowry); and the proprietor of one of the town's pubs, Mick Flanagan, who is also the auctioneer (Malachy Cleary). Each of these actors offers a sturdy, lived-in performance, showing us these men and highlighting their foibles and fears in stark relief.
The Field takes place in 1964, but its economic underpinnings (the classic haves against the have-nots scenario) are as timely now as then. However, some aspects of the rural Irish society that Keane sketches for us here do seem dated, especially (one hopes!) the subservient role that women were forced to play. Keane's three female characters are nevertheless among the play's most interesting, and they're beautifully acted here. Indeed, Orlagh Cassidy nearly emerges as the play's protagonist as Maimie Flanagan, wife to Mick and mother to nine with another on the way; she's the only person in the story with guts enough to stand up to The Bull and it's a real and serious question as to whether and/or how she will. Paddy Croft is resolute and stalwart as the fearful, tight-fisted widow Maggie Butler; she makes it clear to us that offering to sell the field to The Bull in the first place—and thus avoiding all the feudin' and fussin' that happens in the play—was never an option for this tough old bird.
In what amounts to little more than cameo, Karen Lynn Gorney gives perhaps the finest performance of all (one of the very best I can ever recall seeing, in fact) as Dandy McCabe's mostly silent wife (the program only lists her as Mrs. Dandy McCabe). With economy and humility, Gorney lets us into the heart and soul of this touching woman just by letting us see her laugh, carelessly hold onto her husband's hand, or reach thoughtlessly for her hat when she's suddenly startled.
Gorney's work is indicative of the overall excellece of this production, due in no small part to the fine direction of Ciaran O'Reilly (who went on in the play's final role of William Dee at the performance reviewed). Great care, thought, and respect has gone into the creation of every aspect of this show, from Charles Corcoran's effective unit set, which morphs from bar to church to field and back again, to Jason Lyons's evocative lighting to Martha Hally's useful and appropriate costumes. When theatre artists can come together to tell a potent story this beautifully, it's cause for thanks and for celebration. Make Irish Rep's sublime take on The Field one of your theatrical destinations this summer.