February 25, 2013

The more we see of Teresa Deevy, the more she impresses. A leading light of the Abbey Theatre in the 1930s, she sank into obscurity, all but disappearing from the history books until Jonathan Bank, artistic director of the Mint, took up her cause. Just as the journalist and critic Tim Page reinstated Dawn Powell as a major American novelist, Bank has championed Deevy’s cause, and we are the luckier for it. Katie Roche is the third Deevy work to be produced by the Mint in as many years. It may be the best one yet.

The title character is a housemaid living in a little town in Western Ireland. Amelia, her mistress, is a vague, well-meaning spinster, equally devoted to tea with scones and the Stations of the Cross. Stanislaus, Amelia’s brother, an architect from Dublin, arrives with the surprising news that he wants to marry Katie. At 19, Katie can hardly be said to be a fully formed personality; she’s not unattracted to Stanislaus, but she’s equally interested in Michael Maguire, a handsome local lad of no particular promise. She opts for Stanislaus, but the marriage proves to be a disaster, a series of separations and reconciliations that offers little satisfaction for either party.

Deevy is a sly one, laying out an apparently commonplace situation but infusing it with unspoken tensions; her unblinking focus on the hypocrisies and inhibitions of Irish rural life — which are less about the strictures of Roman Catholicism than the craving for respectability and social position — feels thoroughly modern. Even slyer is how, with a few brief references, she makes us see how Katie’s backstory continues to complicate her life: The illegitimate daughter of a beautiful and well-raised young lady, she was given to a foster mother, and, befitting her fallen state, was denied an education. (“You don’t speak well,” Stanislaus reminds her, putting her in her place even as he woos her.) Stanislaus loved Katie’s mother, and his proposal to Katie appears to be motivated by a combination of attraction, guilt, and a desire to set things right.

But there’s no true basis for a real alliance between a middle-aged man — with a solid career, polished manners, and a set-in-stone way of life — and an ambitious, unfocused girl-woman who can’t begin to describe her dreams. Stanislaus leaves Katie in the country, treating her as a kind of doll wife whom he visits from time to time. Katie’s new position as a married woman removes her from the locals who have been her companions since childhood. To be sure, Stanislaus is no Romeo — his idea of wooing involves telling Katie, “You’d probably age more quickly, so there’d be less difference between us in a few years” — but the real problem is that the peculiar circumstances of Katie’s birth have left her stranded between two classes, belonging to neither. Frustrated and bewildered in marriage — “Is it snug as the turnips you’d have us live?” she wonders — and addled by fantasies of noble birth, she begins to act out, stage-managing a romantic encounter with the unwitting Michael in order to embarrass Stanislaus. For a minute or two, she threatens to become another Hedda Gabler — “I’ll be a great woman,” she says; “I’ll make my own goodness” — but really she’s a young girl in over her head, and all of her options are bad.

Under Bank’s meticulous direction, Katie Roche reverberates with the drama of the unspoken as Katie and Stanislaus struggle to find some kind of balance. An apparently casual conversation between Michael and Stanislaus, in which the latter offhandedly stakes his claim to Katie, features pauses pregnant enough to make Harold Pinter envious. Wrenn Schmidt — who has been proving herself a master of Irish drama in the Mint’s production of Deevy’s Temporal Powers and Irish Repertory’s Beyond the Horizon — captures all of Katie’s mood changes, coming across as servile and scattered one minute and turning proudly dismissive the next, before collapsing in tears a minute later. She has a particularly telling moment when, dejected after a set-to with Stanislaus, she sinks into a dining-table chair and savagely shoves a china dish. Patrick Fitzgerald’s Stanislaus is a perfectly groomed prig, every last hair pomaded into place, his suit exquisitely tailored (nice work by Martha Hally), and his lips set close together, ready to signal quiet disapproval. (The way he obsessively arranges the cups at teatime into uniform position tells you a great deal about him; so does the fist he forms behind his back when a conversation threatens to turn ugly.) Together, they make a nearly perfect misalliance.

There’s also good work from Margaret Daly as Amelia, who prefers not to see the tragedy unfolding in front of her; Jon Fletcher as Michael, who yearns for Katie but disapproves of her airs (“What we’re born to, that’s what we’ll be,” he tells her); and Jamie Jackson as the wanderer who shows up long enough to drop a bombshell about Katie’s parentage. In smaller roles, Fiana Toibin is an amusingly acid presence as another of Stanislaus’ sisters, who can’t believe he married beneath him, and John O’Creagh is touching as Amelia’s perpetually hopeful suitor.

Adding to the production’s air of authenticity is Vicki R. Davis’ cottage set, with its faded, patterned wallpaper and low ceiling, and Nicole Pearce’s lighting, which uses the subtlest of means to suggest changes in the time of day. (The cottage set remains evocative even when Katie, in a fit of repentance, decks the halls with religious pictures.) Hally’s costumes reveal much about each of the female characters; she also provides Katie with a trio of outfits that say much about her changing social position. Jane Shaw’s sound effects include a windstorm and cries of villagers at a nearby regatta.

Especially notable is Deevy’s refusal to wrap up her drama with any kind of artificial ending, happy or otherwise. Katie Roche ends with the unhappy couple starting over again, but I wouldn’t give you tuppence for their chances. In an era when “lady writers” were assumed to be a pack of lilac-scented romantics, Deevy’s bracingly unsentimental viewpoint must have been shocking. More than half a century later, it remains remarkable.