This Lime Tree Bower
Lawrence Bommer weighs in on Conor McPherson's celebrated but mysterious triple-threat play.
The problem that This Lime Tree Bower never quite overcomes, despite a trenchant Midwest premiere by Famous Door Theatre, is its inability to tell us why these people are talking to us. The sole props are the three chairs where actors Brad Johnson, Kelly Van Kirk, and Patrick New sit when they're not moodily walking around. They interact, smile with recognition at each other's recollections, and, at the end, step forward for a feel-good Kodak moment. But nothing they say quite justifies their camaraderie or explains their gratuitous revelations. (The title of the play comes from Coleridge's poem about the sudden serenity of sitting in his little lime tree bower.)
Still, to the Irish, sheer storytelling counts for plenty. And, however grungy and maudlin, the tales told here are all pretty tall. Johnson plays teenage Joe, a dreamer and drifter who, despite his suspiciously conventional sex fantasies, has a crush on a guy named Damien. His fixation gets him into trouble (the favorite destination for each of these Irish "wankers"). Lanky and likable, Johnson gives Joe's awkward yearning for the uncaring Damien all the delicious confusion of first love. This boy is too innocent to even pretend to know himself.
Full of compensatory bravado, Joe's older brother Frank (played by New with suitable swagger) toils in their Italian father's restaurant and schemes to get his beloved dad out of debt to a piggish local bigwig. His big moment is to describe a thuggish and, ultimately, pointless robbery. New gives it the irreverent gusto of a Gaelic gangster.
Aiding and abetting these rascals, Van Kirk plays Ray, a boozing and womanizing philosophy professor who beds his students and reviles his successful colleagues. With almost contagious arrogance (the opening night crowd perversely loved this misogynistic bully), the actor must relentlessly regale us with Ray's pathetic attempt to embarrass a famous visiting philosopher: Instead of out-arguing the 90-year-old epistemologist, the obnoxious drunk simply throws up over everyone around him.
The friends' interlocking testimony presents a picture of male bonding that's meant to be both cautionary and sentimental. Rather than be miserable alone, these boys can be restless together and somehow "feel safe." Joe tells us that "Everything backfires...you can't do f--king anything." And yet, at the very end, he also admits that for these three co-conspirators, everything has started well in their life and has even gotten better. We, the audience, must choose which conclusion we can trust.
Thus, other than to remind us that (bad) boys will be (bad) boys, there's little urgency to these casual but somehow calculated anecdotes. Warmly directed by Karen Kessler, the colorful trio play Joe, Ray, and Frank to the hilt. Johnson is most affecting as Joe, a still-sweet lad who, though learning how hard life can be, won't harden himself. Perhaps indulging the actor's fatal desire to be liked despite the part, both New and Van Kirk don't seem ready to fully explore their characters' darker sides. But then the conspiratorial laughter--mostly from men in the opening-night audience--proves, that there's no shortage of sympathy for the right devils.