Theatre: Katie Roche Is Subversive

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Patrick Fitzgerald, Wrenn Schmidt; @Richard Termine

How It’s New York: This is the third play by Teresa Deevy at The Mint Theater, whose ongoing project is to reclaim great plays.
How It’s Irish: Teresa Deevy was an Irish playwrights, whose work was done by The Abbey before she was forgotten in the 30s, and her plays are set in Ireland.


This review was first published in Irish Examiner USA, Tuesday, Feb. 26.


The Mint continues their program of reclaiming the work of the forgotten Irish playwright Teresa Deevy with Katie Roche, a play that often feels as though everybody in it is in a different type of drama. Terrific acting from Wrenn Schmidt in a play that haunts but never quite convinces.

That will be very nice. Won’t that be nice?
Won’t you stay for tea?

These sentiments recur so often in Teresa Deevy’s 1936 play, Katie Roche, that they feel like the chorus of a musical.

It’s a deeply odd play.

In those phrases are all the attempts the characters have to
convince themselves all is well, or to hold their connection together.They rarely do the job.

The drama, which opened Monday, February 25 at The Mint Theater
Company, 311 W. 43rd Street, is the third offering in The Mint’s project
of reclaiming the work of the neglected Irish playwright. The play runs
through March 24. The Mint’s project began in 2010 with the extraordinary Wife to
James Whelan
(we reviewed in 2010), followed in 2011 by Temporal Powers (our review here).

The story of a young servant girl who marries her employer and
must live with the consequences touched the hearts of the critics.
When it was first produced, Katie Roche was compared to plays by
Chekhov
and hailed as a masterpiece by the Irish Independent.
Chosen by the Abbey Theatre to begin its US tour in 1937, the play moves
mysteriously, and not altogether convincingly.

 

Wrenn Schmidt; Margaret Daly, @Richard Termine

Deevy’s work moves obliquely, with characters speaking around the
subject rather than to it.
Her plays often look at the limited horizons
for women and the gentle tragedy of being trapped in disappointing
marriages. In her depiction of day-to-day disappointment Deevy is a
modernist. Her characters neither kill themselves nor run mad when
disappointed. But it’s hard to wrap one’s head fully around Katie Roche,
despite luminous performances from the cast at the Mint and strong
direction by Artistic Director Jonathan Bank.


The Mint’s description of the play as “the story of a fiery young
servant girl of uncertain parentage living a quiet life in rural
Ireland, while harboring dreams of grandeur”
is true, but doesn’t really
give a sense of how the play moves. Katie, especially as played by
Wrenn Schmidt, so good as silly but loving Lizzie Brennan in Temporal
Powers,
and again as the saintly and sweet Julia Sagorsky in Boardwalk
Empire, dreams of greatness, yes. But it’s not funny, anymore than the
dreams of poor Emma Bovary are in Flaubert‘s famous novel. What Katie
seeks is nothing more than a reason to live. She’d like to be a saint,
mostly because she wants greatness in her life.

 

Patrick Fitzgerald, Wrenn Schmidt (@Richard Termine)

Learning that her
mother, Mary Halnan, was unmarried, she’s dejected, then turns proud
when she hears that her father came of an aristocratic family.“I’m done with humble, I was meant to be proud!” she impulsively
tells Reuben (Jamie Jackson), the holy man of the road who tells her her
parentage.

When she marries Stanislaus (Patrick Fitzgerald), who is twice
her age, she wants to be his inspiration, imagining that his profession
of being an architect makes him great. Seeing herself treated as an
annoying child, she nearly becomes one.

In Katie Roche, more than in her other works, Deevy demonstrates
what can happen when characters live more in their own ideas of
themselves and the world than in the world.
No two characters in the
play are in the same drama. The minute a door is closed someone knocks
on it. People hide behind curtains. One character exists purely to enter
and say suspicious things. It borders on absurd, and the dark farcical
style seems a bit like John Millington Synge’s Act I of his 1928 drama
The Silver Tassie (see our review here).

Prof. Christopher Morash, head of the Department of English at
the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, who has co-edited both volumes  of Teresa Deevy Reclaimed (Volume Two is due out next week),
told me in the lobby that the play “seems like a realist play, but it
isn’t.”
My observation is that it is subversive, leading you to think
it’s going to be one kind of play and becoming another. And then
another, again. 

 

Jon Fletcher, Wrenn Schmidt (@Richard Termine)

The plot is fairly straightforward. Katie is a servant to Amelia
Gregg (Margaret Daly). Amelia’s brother Stanislaus comes unexpectedly
from Dublin, and just as unexpectedly proposes. Despite an affection for
Michael Maguire (Jon Fletcher), who plays the melodeon, Katie agrees.
In Acts Two and Three, she learns to live with her decision, and a
husband who punishes her one puny attempt to make him jealous by leaving
her alone often.

Taken as the story of a young woman who makes some terrible
choices, who perhaps had no real choices – when we first encounter her
she’s considering joining the convent, and we will learn that Michael’s
mother and many others in town would scorn her due to having no name –
Katie Roche feels haunting. Wrenn’s tears can’t help but be affecting
when she’s bullied by her husband into leaving to begin a new life.

Yet one feels this is not quite what the author wants us to take
away.

It largely feels as though everyone in the story is in a different style of drama.

Wrenn Schmidt; Jon Fletcher (@Richard Termine)

Deevy, born in 1894, developed a profound deafness due to
Meniere’s disease when she was 20 years old. She went to the theatre to
learn lip-reading, according to the Mint’s program notes, and eventually
became a playwright. Her dialogue feels
overheard and natural– hard to know how that relates to her illness or does not, but it’s remarkable. Hailed as an impressive voice from 1930 to 1936,
she had her play Wife to James Whelan rejected by the Abbey in 1937.
Though she produced some revivals and some other plays throughout her
life, her Abbey career ended. She died in 1963.  Her characters often surprise you and it’s very
difficult to get ahead of her plays.

It’s a beautiful looking play. Martha Hally’s period costumes
feel just right, and Vicki R. Davis’ set beautifully illuminates both
the coziness of the little cottage which is what Katie knows, and its
confining qualities too. Jane Shaw’s sound design sets the tone of the
play, opening with powerful chords that suggest grandeur, or echoing a
plaintive air.

Bank keeps the action lively. As Stanislaus, Fitzgerald, with his
shock of white hair and slow gestures, evokes Mortimer in The Addams
Family.
It’s impossible to feel any real connection with him and Katie,
and hard to know why she loves him – that may be the point, though the
script suggests that much of what Katie does to make him jealous is done
out of panic and indeed love. There is much chemistry between her and
young Maguire, affectedly played by Fletcher with a twinkle in his eye
and a catch in his throat when he realizes what he’s lost. Maguire
clearly inhabits a love story. 

Margaret Daly, John O’Creagh (@Richard Termine)

Daly, as Amelia, Stanislaus’ sister, shows fluttery nervousness,
particularly when her old love Frank Lawlor, a blusteringly direct John
O’Creagh,
comes to claim her. O’Creagh tells the truth so directly he neraly pushes the drama into a realistic, optimistic one. As Reuben, Jackson projects more menace
than spirituality. As Amelia and Stanislaus’ nosy sister, Margaret
Drybone, Fiana Toibin relishes her suspicion like a snob in an 18th
Century drama.

But Wrenn as Katie shows such giddiness, quick-hearted temper and
open-natured love that one is drawn into her story, though it’s not
clear what her story is, as Katie dips a toe into each style.

Maybe that’s the point.

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