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The Mountains Look Different, but the Play Feels the Same

An Irish drama from 1948 has its American premiere 71 years later.

Jesse Pennington and Brenda Meaney in The Mountains Look Different at Theatre Row.
(© Todd Cerveris)

When Micheál mac Liammóir's The Mountains Look Different premiered at Dublin's Gate Theatre in 1948, the production was met with much controversy. Decried as immoral by the conservative powers-that-be in staunchly Catholic Ireland, the play was subject to walkouts and protests. Yet at the same time, it also proved a favorite among audience members more welcoming of the subject matter and style, which fell somewhere between Greek tragedy and Eugene O'Neill-style melodrama.

Today's spectators will probably be among those less welcoming — not because of the play's salaciousness, but because of its sensationalism. If the Mint Theater's American premiere of The Mountains Look Different, 71 years after its initial debut, proves anything, it's that melodrama doesn't always get better with age — and this one is particularly creaky.

The central character is Bairbre (Brenda Meaney), an Irish woman who has spent the past 13 years living in London and working as a prostitute. Three days ago, Bairbre married Tom Grealish (Jesse Pennington, tense and mannered), a farmer who knows nothing of the past his new wife is desperate to escape. Taking her home to rural Connemara, Tom plans to live and work on the farmland belonging to his father, Martin (Con Horgan, quietly menacing). Martin, however, recognizes Bairbre from an evening many moons ago, setting off a chain reaction that leaves no one unscathed.

What one notices most about The Mountains Look Different is how dusty it is, particularly in its treatment of Bairbre. There's no escaping the judgmental nature of mac Liammóir's text, which seems to suggest that women are in constant need of rescuing, and if they try to operate on their own, bad things will happen. Fortunately, Meaney is terrific and keeps her head up, delivering a dignified performance filled with gravitas. She's especially good when acting opposite Horgan. Their scenes together are the most compelling in the two-hour production.

Some of that is because Aidan Redmond's staging is a little bit slack. Pretty as it is — and Vicki R. Davis's storybook set and Christian DeAngelis's blazing lights are so pretty — Redmond hasn't figured out what to do with a variety of ancillary characters, specifically the mystical and mute Batty Wallace (Liam Forde), who hovers around the action playing a tin whistle and sensing doom. Similarly, if he picked up the pace, allowed the pot to boil with a little more ferocity, and cut the intermission, The Mountains Look Different would have the tenseness it needs to really land.

Instead, it all just looks the same.

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