Brava Teresa Deevy, and Temporal Powers at the Mint!

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How It’s New York:  This production is part of the 1st Irish Festival, happening now in New York.  For a compendium of New York critics’ reviews (including mine!  They said I gave it an “A”) check out StageGrade.  And it’s happening at the Mint Theater Co., one of New York’s gems, that specializes in reclaiming dramatic works for the stage.
How It’s Irish:  Teresa Deevy was the darling of the Abbey Theatre in Ireland in the 30s.  The play is in the genre of Peasant Play, as it examines the struggles of an evicted couple, Michael and Min Donovan– with each other, with G-d, with Life.

I love, love LOVED the Mint’s reclamation of Teresa Deevy’s play Wife to James Whelan last year (download my review here!).   I said it was one of the best things I’d seen in a long time.  It stayed with me a long time, too.

Temporal Powers is a very different play, but equally powerful in its own right.  And equally provocative.  Listen to Director Jonathan Bank, Professor Christopher Morash of NUI Maynooth, and Actor Aidan Redmond discuss in this week’s podcast, coming soon!

This is the review I wrote for Irish Examiner (USA) last week.  It will be in the lobby of the Mint as well, my first lobby pull out, and I literally jumped up and down for joy when Jonathan mentioned it at the 1st Irish launch on Wednesday.  Because I’m just made that way.

Tuesday August 30, 2011

Temporal Powers: Love Is Eternal, And So Is The Material World

Aidan Redmond, Rosie Benton in a scene from Temporal Powers, written by Teresa Deevy and directed by Jonathan Bank; presented by The Mint Theater Company (Richard Termine)
As Hurricane Irene rages around the tri-state area (writing this on battery power, by candlelight), the plight of the Donovans, evicted and living in the open air at the top of Teresa Deevy’s haunting 1932 play, Temporal Powers, which opened August 29 and runs through Oct. 2 at the Mint Theater, feels all too close to home.

Who are we when we’re stripped of everything? Right vs. Wrong always makes a good story. But right vs. right makes an unforgettable one.

“Temporal Powers” can mean many things – but it’s something other than Eternal. Whether romantic love, or ambition, or money, we can’t pretend not to be living in a Material World.

If you had the good fortune to see the Mint’s production of Wife to James Whelan last year, directed, like this one, by Mint Artistic Director Jonathan Bank, you will expect surprise, insight and subtlety in the script, and color, nuance and depth in the performances.  You won’t be wrong. Temporal Powers is unmissable. Not only by anybody interested in Irish theatre history, to whom the truly wonderful work on reclaiming Deevy from obscurity feels like a miracle, but also by anybody interested in good theatre.

Note that I didn’t write “Irish theatre.” The skill Deevy demonstrated in her plotting and characterization should always have been honored, anthologized, shared, as much as any O’Casey.
Bold words, but I’ll stand by them. Deevy had six plays in six years at the Abbey during the ’30s, then fell from grace – for reasons unclear – and was erased from theatrical history (except for some radio plays), though she lived on, a deaf old woman on a bicycle (her “ear” for dialogue unhampered, somehow, by the deafness she’d had since a teenager) until 1963.

I understand from Bank and from Professor Chris Morash, who spoke on the play’s themes in stimulating discussions after matinees last weekend, that an anthology has gone to press. Thank goodness for that. And for the Mint’s mission to reclaim great classic plays, which led Bank down this road in the first place.We are lucky in New York to have the Mint here. If all they did was find and stage these plays, it would be enough, but what they do is to reincarnate them into striking works of art.

Like the production last year, Temporal Powers is in three acts, and Bank takes an intermission after each, so you can truly feel the thrust of the playwright’s intent in each movement.
And as last year, there are free shots of Irish whiskey for the audience. The whiskey this year is Tirconnell Single Malt.

It does seem uncanny how Deevy’s plays resonate in contemporary Ireland (and America).
Wife to James Whelan took on issues of commercial growth; Temporal Powers looks at people on their last legs. Mortgage foreclosure, anyone?
At the top of the show Michael (Aiden Redmond) and Min (Rosie Benton) are sitting in an old ruin.
There are traces of its having once been habitable – a fireplace, a window-but there is no roof.As Michael tries to affix a shutter to the door to make the place a little more habitable, she berates him for the state they’ve come to. They’ve been evicted – by whom does not come into the story, but it isn’t the British.  The play is set in 1927, but written in 1932, a decade after the Free State was established, as Prof. Morash pointed out – yet rural Ireland, even five years after it became free, is no paradise.  

MICHAEL: I did me best. 

MIN: (Quiet, accusing) Your best! Michael Donovan, it was never in your heart to make money. Now, what worse thing could be said of any man?

Read more after the jump!  Also a clip from The MintThetaer’s Youtube– but look for a much better clip on PBS!  (will post details when I have them!)

Shes not consoled that he was content where they were before – it’s that that makes her angrier.
I found it hard to like Min and was inclined to be sympathetic to Michael’s love of “the hill” where he worked, but you can see she has a point.
Michael’s goodness has made him somewhat weak. And Min has cause-among the few possessions they treasure is the toy drum of their dead child, Seamus. Where money fits into relationships becomes the theme of the play when Michael discovers a packet of notes hidden in the ruin.
Min urges him to keep it and start a new life in America with it. Michael wants to discuss it with the priest, which incurs her scorn.
Even when handsome neighbor Moses (Eli James) informs them of a recent robbery at the post office in Coolbarry, Min still presses to get her way:

MIN: Maybe you’ll tell me is this the law now – don’t be robbing from them you never laid eyes on, but take what you’ll like from them must live with you?

And she scorns her husband’s use of the word “right.” But Michael’s ideals are persuasive too. And that’s one reason you know you’re in the hands of a really great writer  We meet Moses’ would-be sweetheart, innocent young Lizzie Brennan (Wrenn Schmidt), who is just as accepting as Min is judgmental.
Eli James, Wrenn Schmidt in a scene from Temporal Powers, written by Teresa Deevy and directed by Jonathan Bank; presented by The Mint Theater Company (Richard Termine)
She remarks:

Michael Donovan has settled the place great. They are better off than below. Are they pleased?” 

In this couple, it’s the man who keeps insisting they must have money before they marry, while she would be happy just to be with him.
Moses’ mother Daisy (Fiana Toibin) dislikes Lizzie, and provides comic relief with her insistence on being the first in a house of sorrow, Michael’s sister Maggie (Bairbre Dowling) has patience and kindness but her acceptance of her jailbird husband Ned (Con Horgan), who we will soon learn has stolen the money, has led to no happiness for anybody.  Rounding out the village are Jim Slattery (Paul Carlin), a well-connected man who is able to get tickets to America quickly but whose love of “justice” in the abstract has no kindness in it, and Father O’Brien (Robertson Carricart), who is well-meaning and powerless.
America is a silent presence in the play – it’s the destination where people can remake themselves.
It’s as much about the future as the ruin of the set is the past. Maggie has boys in America, who send money home. She has enough to send Michael, but not Min.
Where Act I sets up the play’s major conflicts, Act II explores them.  Act III takes place after some of the characters have been arrested, and we wait to see how that plays out. But Deevy always throws curves. It looks as though Act II will be about Min conspiring with Ned, a smooth-talking, though limping, criminal, to rob her own husband. You prepare yourself for the possible outcomes – he wakes up; she backs down; he gets killed by accident; she does. This would have been a perfectly respectable and plausible plot, if somewhat melodramatic.
It’s not spoiling too much to say that none of these things happen. Instead various people show up and people, including Ned, talk, in the roofless living room. If I hadn’t opened with Irene I’d open with that.
Honestly, only an Irish, or possibly a Russian, playwright, would take an obvious cliffhanger and turn it into a philosophical chat over a bottle.
Deevy was compared to Chekhov (before she was forgotten) and it’s apt – like him she is sharp, funny, unstinting, and always human. There is plotting, but the characters drive the plot as much as they are driven by it. And as in Wife to James Whelan, there’s mystery.  Characters talk and talk and often don’t say the thing most important to say.  Why does Michael withhold a vital piece of information, that would only please his wife? Why do we know she still loves him, despite her sharp tongue and endless blame of him? This voluble silence strikes me as particularly Irish. And it’s something that’s very very modern.
You can understand why actors love her (in 1956, a group of actors staged a reading of Wife to James Whelan; they still remembered her). She writes characters with all the non sequiturs and contradictions of actual human beings. Redmond, so good (and a bit too good-looking) as the honest, sincere Tom Carey in Wife to James Whelan, brings out the natural gallantry in Michael Donovan. It takes a lot to rouse his temper, and his passion at all. Benton, charismatic as James Whelan’s best friend, sensible Kate, last year, plays Min as almost a Scarlett O’Hara (and after all, what was Scarlett but the daughter of Irish immigrants herself?). She’s ambitious, and she’s a child. Her glee at Michael’s putting her first, and her panicky blaming of everybody, have the helpless appeal of a toddler.
Somehow it makes their bond convincing. Schmidt’s Lizzie has the charm of a singing bird, and it’s only hard to see how Eli James’ sweet Moses resists her so long.
I howled nearly every time Fiana Toibin, as Moses’ mother Daisy, opened her mouth.

At the Mint Theater (311 West 43rd Street), Temporal Powers is part of the 1st Irish Theatre Festival (www.1stirish.org) Tuesday through Thursday at 7pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $55. Tickets are available by calling the Mint box office at (212) 315-0231 or go to www.minttheater.org
The Mint continues offering a limited number of seats for every performance at half-price ($27.50)
Village gossip in the guise of sympathy never changes (for proof, check out any Housewives in any city). As Ned, Con Horgan mixes just the right amount of sleazy with sympathy.
But all of the performers find their moments. Bank brings out a lovely natural quality throughout, though at times I wanted the quietness to break sooner.
Vicki R. Davis’ set design of a ruin on a ruin is a story in itself, and gorgeous, and Andrea Varga’s costumes speak loudly about the characters.
On line for the ladies’ room, I overheard a conversation: “What’s this play about?” said one woman.
As the other began to say that it was about what would happen with the money, the other said impatiently, “I know all that, but who’s good? Who’s bad?
It’s a good question. One that many contemporary plays no longer ask. That Temporal Powers does makes it challenging. That there is no answer makes it truly great.
Temporal Powers won First Prize in the new play competition held by the Abbey Theatre in 1932. It’s wonderful to have it back.


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Copyright 2011 New York Irish Arts