John Patrick Shanley has written more than 25 plays and screenplays. He is perhaps best known for the film “Moonstruck” and the Broadway play “Doubt: A Parable.”
The former, the story of a bookkeeper from Brooklyn who falls for the brother of the man she’s supposed to marry, starred Cher and Nicolas Cage and won Shanley an Oscar for Best Screenplay. “Doubt” is an intense cat-and-mouse drama about a relentless nun who suspects a priest of molesting an altar boy. For that one, Shanley received the 2005 Tony Award for Best Play along with the Pulitzer Prize.
Born in the Bronx, Shanley was raised in a decidedly Irish culture. However it wasn’t until 2014, when he was well into his career, that he tried his hand at a story set in Ireland. “Outside Mullingar” was the result, presented on Broadway by the Manhattan Theater Club and starring Brian F. O’Byrne and Debra Messing. The piece received Best Play nominations for the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards.
“Outside Mullingar” is being presented from July 15 - 26 by The Peterborough Players in Peterborough, NH. Set in rural Ireland, the smart, contemporary, romantic comedy focuses on the Muldoon and Reilly families and their rival heirs, Anthony and Rosemary.
Anthony and Rosemary are loners, eccentrics and approaching 40. Their personal history bristles with insecurity, unrequited love and a long-held grudge over a plot of land. The question is, have they been meant for each other from the start? And is there still time for romance? Or is the prickly, push-pull of their relationship an insurmountable obstacle?
As Shanley wrote in The New York Times, “I always knew I’d have to come home eventually. I’m Irish as hell: Kelly on one side, Shanley on the other. My father had been born on a farm in the Irish Midlands. He and his brothers had been shepherds there, cattle and sheep, back in the early 1920s. I grew up surrounded by brogues and Irish music, but stayed away from the old country till I was over 40. I just couldn’t own being Irish . . . Something in me hated being confined by an ethnic identity, by any family.”
He headed to Ireland in 1993 out of necessity. His father was making the trip but was unable to maneuver the journey alone. The pair wound up visiting his father’s ancestral home. As he sat surrounded by relatives, Shanley suddenly felt he had unearthed a long-lost world.
It would take another two decades for him to create “Outside Mullingar.” He claimed to find enormous relief in writing the play. As he shared in the Times, “I kind of erupted with language. I felt free suddenly, free to be Irish. Family stories, family names, changed by dreaming, mixed with my own long longings for love and impossible happiness unfurled across the page.”
In New Hampshire, Gus Kaikkonen, artistic director at The Peterborough Players, decided to add “Outside Mullingar” to his summer season because “I saw it in New York, I’m a big fan of Shanley’s and I was very drawn to it. I think he’s exploring a whole new side of himself and the world.”
Of the relationship between Rosemary and Anthony, Kaikkonen said, “It’s about last chances and a very determined woman. (She believes) ‘We’re going to make this work somehow.’ . . . Look at the other women in his plays. He writes women really well.”
Kaikkonen talked about laying out a summer season of seven productions: “Theater is a vast library. I have grown up in the theater. I was acting when I was a little kid and have never stopped . . . I try to pick a season where no two plays will be alike in terms of style or content or theme . . . I always try to look for something the audience hasn’t heard before.”
It’s almost a given that Irish stories, whether comedy or drama, exude a strong sense of longing balanced by an underlying foundation of acerbic wit.
“The most serious plays are often the funniest,” said Kaikkonen. “I’m only attracted to plays that have wit in them. Death for me is sitting in the theater for two hours – no matter how good it is – and not ever having a moment of wit or connection with the characters . . . With cruelty on stage, usually the audience responds with laughter. And with kindness on stage, usually the audience responds with tears, to get really simple and real basic.”
“There’s a lot of cruelty in this play,” he said with a laugh. It “comes across as extraordinary wit.”
Kaikkonen’s love for the arts stretches back to when he was as a boy, rounding up all the kids in the neighborhood to put on a show. So many years later, the actor-writer-director is still at it – drawing people together to put on a show. Although he lives in Manhattan and works all around the country, he loves the charm of New Hampshire.
“It’s an absolutely beautiful spot,” he said. The theater “is an 18th century barn that has been lovingly insulated and air conditioned and modernized but always left looking . . . as an 18th century barn. The atmosphere is extraordinary . . . The whole history of summer theater is contained in that room. It’s very intimate, it’s only 250 seats . . . We’ve been here 80 years. It’s a real part of the community.”
He added, “It’s also terrific to be able to employ so many artists. I work all over the country and to spot somebody who’s working in Cincinnati or Winston Salem, North Carolina, and say ‘This person is really special’ and get them to come to New Hampshire is another gift.”
That includes working with the cast of “Outside Mullingar,” featuring Norton Award winner Bridget Beirne as Rosemary, Tom Frey as Anthony, Dale Hodges as Aoife. and Michael Page as Tony.
The difficult part of a long career in the theater, Kaikkonen said, is being away from home so much. That’s been softened by spending the past 20 summers in Peterborough. “When I leave New York and I come here I don’t feel like I’m going away from home. I feel like I’m going to my other home. And that’s a wonderful thing.”
Which sounds very similar to what Shanley experienced in Ireland.
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of www.onstageboston.com.
“Outside Mullingar,” July 15 - 26 at The Peterborough Players, 55 Hadley Rd, Peterborough, NH. Info: 603-924-7585 or peterboroughplayers.org.