Anthony Reilly and Rosemary Muldoon were made for each other, though it takes them almost the entirety of John Patrick Shanley's "Outside Mullingar" to come to that life-changing realization.
The 2014 Broadway play isn't a major theatrical achievement on the order of Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Doubt." Rather, it's a tribute to the Bronx-born playwright's Irish roots, to casting off preconceived notions, to the sweet salvation of love.
Directed with artful tenderness by J. Barry Lewis, Palm Beach Dramaworks' new production of "Outside Mullingar" takes place in a world that is far gentler than the darkly, violently comic rural Ireland that dominates the plays of Martin McDonagh.
That's not to say there aren't sorrows, noisy disagreements and losses in "Outside Mullingar." The very first scene finds aged farmer Tony Reilly (Alex Wipf) and his son Anthony (Nick Hetherington) hastily tidying up their modest rustic kitchen before their neighbors, Aoife Muldoon (Patricia Kilgarriff) and her prickly daughter, Rosemary (Kathy McCafferty), arrive in a thunderstorm for a cup of tea.
The elders, widower and new widow, talk about their deceased spouses, and both allow as how they too will depart this earth before long.
Tony shares that he's thinking about leaving the family farm to his American nephew instead of his often-gloomy son, but he needs to buy back an important bit of land he sold to Aoife's husband when he was in need of funds. The widow isn't having it. Besides, she says, she gave the land, which provides access to the Reilly farm, to Rosemary at her daughter's request.
Layering in a key bit of history, the playwright reveals that when Rosemary was 6 and Anthony 13, he pushed her down on that very spot. Now, some 30 years later, neither has married, though Anthony once loved a girl named Fiona, who rejected him after he shared his deepest secret. And Rosemary, it seems, has resented her bachelor neighbor all these years. Or has she?
"Outside Mullingar" is a singular, eccentric, finally heartwarming love story, beautifully told by its quartet of actors.
Veteran performers Wipf and Kilgarriff — he ruddy, she pale and both with snow-white hair — convey their opinionated characters' strong personalities while carrying on a conversation full of the frankness and familiarity of longtime neighbors. Giving voice to emotions too often felt but not expressed, Wipf has a beautiful scene with Hetherington, in which ailing father and worried son acknowledge their love for each other.
McCafferty plays Rosemary with a mixture of easily triggered testiness and pent-up longing. Hetherington's Anthony is a decent but distracted soul, a man so consumed with the idea of his secret self that he fails to truly see what — or who — is right in front of him.
Set and lighting designer Paul Black, utilizing a small turntable, creates the neighbors' kitchens, the sparse bedroom of a dying Tony, the manger where Rosemary huddles in the rain to smoke, a habit Anthony wishes she would break. Leslye Menshouse's costumes include rural touches such as rubber boots and, for Aoife and Rosemary, the black garb of mourning. Sound designer Steve Shapiro supplies a barking dog, singing birds and the thunderstorms that are the reason for those rubber boots.
Almost 30 years ago, Shanley won fame and an Oscar for "Moonstruck," a screenplay imbued with crazy passion. If that was Italian-American grand opera, "Outside Mullingar" is like a set in an Irish pub, an evening filled with spirit and laced with a touch of melancholy. And its capstone is a kiss, one of the loveliest you'll ever see on a stage, that simply says, "At last."
"Outside Mullingar" is running through April 24 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday (7 p.m. shows on some Sundays). Tickets cost $64 (students $10). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.