After all, a play in which the inhabitants of an Irish village first admire a young stranger for killing his Da, then turn on him when they discover the boy botched the job, is not an advertisement for Irish morality. Worse, a young woman whom we come to admire for her fierce, independent thinking first falls in love with our murderous hero and then cruelly rejects him when his father shows up to bring the boy home. In the play's most shocking moment, despite the young man's eloquent plea for her love, she literally (and figuratively) wounds him forever; she defies romantic convention and does not get the boy. More tragically, she and her lover are now doomed to lives of loneliness and misery--and she knows it.
Yet, when properly acted and directed, The Playboy of the Western World is very funny (if uncomfortable), with a turnabout at the end that's the theatrical equivalent of a kick in the groin. Simply put, this is a great play. If there are any riots caused by the current revival at The Irish Repertory Theatre, they will be at the box office and will involve people trying to buy tickets.
This is a sharp production that features a breathtaking performance by Derdriu Ring as Pegeen, the young, hard-bitten lass who takes a shine to the alleged murderer, Christy (Dara Coleman). The actress establishes her character's tough-minded, no-nonsense personality long before Christy shows up; it's a wonderfully written role, and Ring wrings every possible nuance out of this brash yet vulnerable young woman. Director Charlotte Moore was wise to cast a gifted character actress in this part, rather than an ingenue.
Ring's not the only one to display considerable acting chops in this production. Aedin Moloney plays the Widow Quin, Pegeen's rival for Christy, and while she might be a touch young for the part, her sly, insidious performance is very convincing. Best of all, when we discover that this bitch-on-wheels character has a heart, Moloney makes the transition with tear-jerking credibility.
The performances of Ring and Moloney alone would be worth the price of admission. As Christy, the object of their affections, Dara Coleman gives an appealing performance; were he to play the role with a greater degree of subtext, however, the play's ultimate impact would be even more powerful. The rest of the cast is uneven, but James Gale as Christy's resilient father is quite impressive, and David Costelloe as Pegeen's ineffectual local boyfriend is a very effectual actor.
David Raphel's set design makes exquisite use of the Irish Rep's small stage. Kirk Bookman's lighting gives a tangible sense of time passing. Most praiseworthy of all, though, is Charlotte Moore, who has directed this time-honored play with a delicious mix of humor and humanity while never losing sight of its fundamental sadness.