IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?
September 14, 2009
The invaluable Mint Theater Company’s genial production of Lennox Robinson’s 1933 comedy (originally titled “Drama at Inish”) keeps a smile on your face for two hours. This loving look at the work of an important figure in Irish theater in the first half of the 20th century brims with shining talent and smartly executed craft.
The central idea is simple: In the seaside town of Inish, Ireland, hotelier and producer John Twohig responds to complaints about an excessively vulgar comic theatrical troupe he employed the previous summer by importing a touring company dedicated to serious drama: Chekhov, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Strindberg. Surprisingly, the simple townsfolk take to it, flocking to the theater night after night and becoming deeply involved with the stories and characters. Unfortunately, that involvement starts to upset their mental equilibrium, causing them to ask themselves the titular question. This leads to a sudden rash of suicide attempts, poisoning plots, and violent arguments, at least until Twohig realizes what’s happening and acts to put it all right.
The action takes place in a private sitting room in Twohig’s hotel, which is a social center for the town and also where the troupe is staying. Plot takes a back seat to character, but thankfully, Robinson has provided a gently comic array of them, and director Jonathan Banks’ finely calibrated direction brings each to the fore. Paul O’Brien is a commanding and sympathetic Twohig, making subtle comic hay out of the character’s lack of introspection. As his wife, Bairbre Dowling is entrancing in her certitude that drama is just not for her. As their love-struck son, Graham Outerbridge descends convincingly into the kind of existential despair that belongs only to the inexperienced young. As the object of his affection, a modern girl from the city who is in town to do the local factory’s accounting, Leah Curney is full of cool charm and bright confidence. Margaret Daly plays Twohig’s spinster sister with a fine eye for her foibles and insecurities as well as her big heart, while Jeremy Lawrence is engagingly clueless as the hapless national assemblyman for the area who had no idea he jilted her back in the day.
Real-life spouses Jordan Baker and Kevin Kilner are particularly believable as the long-married thespians who run the acting company and star in all the productions. Baker is enticingly mannered as the diva, yet she never loses sight of the wounded woman hiding beneath the sheen, and Kilner broods and muses about life and art with appropriate style. Their post-performance late-dinner scene at the top of Act 2 is particularly well played. John Keating, Erin Moon, Grant Neale, and John O’Creagh round out the company, each contributing a delightful, sharply etched comic silhouette.
The play is subtitled “an exaggeration,” and set designer Susan Zeeman Rogers has taken that to heart in her nicely stylized candy-box set, with its large painted pastel flowers, curved back wall, and non-naturalistic fireplace. Martha Hally’s rich period costumes are a pleasure, and Jeff Nellis lights the proceedings shrewdly.
Indeed, Banks’ entire production radiates confidence. It certainly feels as if what’s on stage is exactly what’s intended. But as I left the theater still smiling, a nagging thought crept into my head that perhaps one slight miscalculation had been made. If Banks had just kicked everything up a notch, I might have been smiling less and laughing more. Pitched at the current level, “Is Life Worth Living?” can’t escape just a hint of academia. But don’t let that deter you from a visit. Robinson was a fine writer, and this “Life” is definitely worth living.