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The Field

John B. Keane sets up his play's characters and conflict with aplomb, but to what end? logo
Marty Maguire and Laurence Lowry
in The Field
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Making certain that thundering cattle have passage to water is the basis of more than one Western you can name. Usually, the proprietary cattlemen are a violence-prone father and his stupid, sinister sons, while the folks with the water on their land are the peaceable folk. Great upheaval occurs before something or someone happens along to set things right, and it all unfolds on sprawling, gorgeous natural terrain.

Sp one might as well call John B. Keane's agitated play The Field a Western, even though the west in which it takes place is southwest Ireland. As in any of these genre examples, the area of contention here is a plot of land where cattle graze, water is plentiful, and the cattle owner at hand is used to having the run of the fertile territory.

Widow Maggie Butler (Paddy Croft) owns the field. Explosive events get underway when she marches into the pub owned by Mick Flanagan (Malachy Cleary) and run by him, his wife Maimie (Orlagh Cassidy), and son Leamy (Paul Nugent). Mick is also the local auctioneer, and Maggie has decided that she wants to sell the field at an auction open to all comers. The trouble is that a local tyrant known as "The Bull" McCabe (Marty Maguire), who has been paying the widow for use of the disputed field, doesn't want any competitive bidding -- and he lets it be known that he and his surly son Tadhg (Tim Ruddy) will make sure there is none. This dictum means nothing to William Dee (director Ciaran O'Reilly, temporarily playing the role), an expatriate who's planning to return to Ireland from England with his ailing wife. But "The Bull" and offspring follow through on their threat with unsurprising brutality; then they browbeat, arm-twist, and, well, cow their neighbors into silence.

Keane sets up the play's characters and conflict with aplomb. The fact-paced action, set in 1964, takes place in the McCabe pub, designed by Charles Corcoran with particular attention paid to the wooden bar. The friction among the McCabes, the Flanagans, the determined and fearless William Dee, and a drink-cadging galoot called "The Bird" O'Donnell (Ken Jennings) is tantamount to a handful of sticks rubbed together until sparks fly. The writing remains keen right though a second-act opening scene in which the McCabes lie in wait at the field for William Dee to pass by, but then something goes awry in Keane's script.

Having had a steady grip on the local citizens and on what he wants to say about their cupidity and cowardice, the author apparently doesn't know how to resolve their clashing dilemmas. He knows he doesn't want audiences to absorb what he depicts in cut-and-dried terms; he writes an impromptu investigation in Flanagan's Bar, but the interrogating Father Murphy (Craig Baldwin) and Sergeant Leahy (Lawrence Lowry) make no headway. By the time the play is done, Keane hasn't established what ends he's pursuing, other than making some observations about silence being leaden.

As is increasingly typical of the Irish Repertory Theatre, a strong cast performs well under O'Reilly's strong direction. Maguire, rampaging as "The Bull," is the same actor who only a few months ago was the sympathetic protagonist in Marie Jones's A Night in November. Tim Ruddy, John O'Creagh, and Karen Lynn Gorney are adroit as the other McCabes, with Gorney inducing giggles as a woman who herself keeps giggling until "The Bull" finally shuts her up. The Flanagans are portrayed with economical effectiveness by Cleary, Cassidy, and Nugent. Long-faced Croft is her usual perfect self as Maggie, while Jennings mines "The Bird" O'Donnell for every possible laugh.

One intriguing aspect of the McCabe-Dee contretemps depicted in The Field is that "The Bull," who has developed the land while widow Burton's tenant, intends to continue using it for traditional purposes; Dee, on the other hand, is in the concrete business and plans to build a factory on the disputed land. In a play set in the present day, Dee would be the villain and McCabe the hero. Keane verges on suggesting such a gray area but falls short here as well; you could say that he takes the field but doesn't entirely command it.

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