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Paulanne Simmons

Irish Rep Brings Another Little Known Work to Life

"Sive" -- Fiana Tobin (above) and Wrenn Schmidt. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Directed by Ciaran O'Reilly
The Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd St., between 6th & 7th Avenues
Opened Sept. 27, 2007
Tues. thru Sat 8 p.m., Sat. & Sun. matinees at 3 p.m.
$60 & $55 (212) 727-2737 or www.irishrep.org
Closes Nov. 11, 2007
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Oct. 6, 2007

John B. Keane's first play, "Sive," originally produced in 1959, and now at The Irish Repertory Theatre, is a simple but moving family drama set in Ireland during the days when the country was still poor. There are all the usual suspects.

In addition to Sive (Wrenn Schmidt), the innocent and defenseless orphan, there is the evil aunt/stepmother, Mena (Fiana Toibin); the gullible, ineffective uncle/stepfather, Mike (Aidan Redmond); the lustful old man, Sean (Christopher Joseph Jones), and his crony, the greedy matchmaker, Thomasheen Sean Rua (Patrick Fitzgerald); the girl's true love, Liam (Mark Thornton); and her Nanna/fairy godmother (Terry Donnelly). There's even a chorus to sing the ballad.

For all those who haven't yet figured it out, the play is about how Mena, Mike and Thomasheen scheme to marry off the unwilling Sive to the wealthy and crotchety Sean, while Nanna and Mike try to save her, with the help of two wandering minstrels named Carthalawn (James Barry) and Pats Bocock (Donie Carroll).

For Mena, the marriage will kill two birds with one stone: it will get Mena out of her hair and the grandmother (who Thomasheen has already said can come with Sive) out of her home. It will also bring a substantial sum to both the matchmaker and Sive's guardians.

Having endured a miserable childhood and now tolerating a loveless marriage, Mena is not concerned with inconvenient details, such as the fact that the girl is the illegitimate daughter of Mike's sister. Nor is she troubled that Mike swore to his sister on her deathbed he would have the child educated, and certainly not forced to drop out of school so she can marry a man old enough to be her grandfather. She is relentless in the pursuit of her goals.

Anyone who is now thinking "been there, seen that" doesn't know how Irish playwrights can take any story and give it the kind of language that can tear your heart out. And they probably don't know how the Irish Rep can select a director (in this case Ciarian O'Reilly, most recently seen with Gabriel Byrne in the Roundabout's "Touch of a Poet") and assemble a cast that can breathe life into any story line. Last season, the Irish Rep took on Keane's "The Field," with equally impressive results.

In other words, even though this play's ending is abundantly apparent from the very beginning, when it finally arrives one cannot but be overwhelmed by its sheer beauty and emotional truth. And if the words themselves didn't carry enough music, the play provides two musicians who, like a Greek chorus, warn and chide to no avail.

Donnelly is particularly compelling as the defiant yet fearful old lady who calls her daughter-in-law "the disease of her system" and keeps trying to light her pipe while the termagant is not looking. Redmond, as her son, does a valiant job trying to convince the audience why his character would be so submissive to his wife (who hasn't even given him children) and almost succeeds.

But it is Thornton whose raw anger and grief make "Sive" seem totally fresh and the ending totally unexpected, even though we've been waiting for it for almost two hours.

Before becoming a writer, Keane was a bar-owner in Listowel, County Kerry. Perhaps it was here that he learned of the great pathos and paradox that is human life. Perhaps listening to people's stories he learned how good people can be fooled and cajoled into doing bad things, how poverty can make some cruel and others submissive. Where he learned to put it on paper is anyone's guess. For a long time he went unnoticed by the literary set. But, true to form, The Irish Rep



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