There are literary references galore in The Night Season by Rebecca Lenkiewicz at Strawdog Theatre Company. But although you might be tempted to Google something at intermission, you’ll find this an entertaining evening of theater, even if it rambles on its way to a lovely conclusion, studded with King Lear quotes.
Directed by Elly Green, the play is set in Sligo in the West of Ireland, where a film company is producing a movie about native son W.B. Yeats. Both the film and the play are rooted in the story of Yeats’ romance with Maud Gonne. Despite all the other literary references, there’s not much of Yeats here. Just a few mentions and a line or two of poetry.
An American actor, John Eastman (John Henry Roberts) arrives to play Yeats. John wants to stay in a local home rather than a hotel to get a feeling of the real Sligo. And so he is welcomed to stay with the Kennedys. Father Patrick (Jamie Vann), and sisters Judith (Justine C. Turner), Rose (Michaela Petro) and Maud (Stella Martin). Lily (Janice O’Neill) their maternal grandmother, also lives there. She’s 93, frail and a little forgetful, shall we say.
Patrick’s wife and the girls’ mother Esther deserted the family for London 15 years ago. But the wounds have not healed. Lily still asks for Esther, her daughter, and the sisters are trying to make a connection with their mother.
The Night Season has plenty of Irish charm, the requisite amount of drinking, and musical background composed of songs from Lily’s 1930s playlist. The play, which runs about 2-1/2 hours with one intermission, is long but never tedious. It’s made up of a series of scenes about the sisters’ various relationships without much plot to tie everything together.
But back to those literary references.
Do the three Irish sisters remind you of Chekhov? Judith is a librarian. Maud has a Communist boyfriend who yearns to go to Moscow.
Patrick, their father, sees himself as King Lear with three daughters. He frequently tosses off quotes from Shakespeare and other literary figures. When John offers Patrick some of his stash of marijuana, Patrick tells of his first experience smoking pot in Denver where he was searching for Kerouac.
Patrick: Sharper than a serpent’s tooth. Do you know where that is from, John?
John: King Lear.
Patrick: He had three daughters too, didn’t he? I feel for him. No wonder he went fucking mad. And that was without the mother-in-law.
As if to cement the King Lear thing, we have a scene with Judith and Patrick, who’ve been a bit estranged (not over estate matters), meeting to drink at Patrick’s favorite bar. Judith at first refuses, then keeps up with Patrick and they both get roaring drunk. Later, they’re outside looking at the sky and Judith says she can’t walk but wants to see her lover/ex-lover Gary (Michael Reyes). Patrick takes her there, carrying his drunken daughter on his back. Like Lear carrying the corpse of his darling Cordelia over the moors.
Lenkiewicz draws Judith and Rose, the two oldest sisters, as women with fierce passions. And Turner and Petro fulfill those roles with intensity. Vann is also strong as the bereaved husband and loving father.
Rose to John after their lovemaking: “It’s all been a bit intense, you know? Did you ever feel that you were waiting for something and when it happened you couldn’t handle it? It was too immense, too strange, or I don’t know what.”
Roberts is a bit laconic and understated as the American actor, brought in to play the Irish poet/hero. (There’s no mention of how that would have ticked off the Irish, just as Americans get annoyed at Brits and Australians playing American cultural heroes. Like Tom Hiddleston playing Hank Williams in the 2015 film, I Saw the Light. And Superman, Batman and Spider Man, all played recently by Brits.)
Mike Mroch’s set design puts several different bedrooms, pubs and sitting rooms all in one open space, punctuated by Claire Chrzan’s lighting design as scenes change. Heath Hays’ sound design modulates Lily’s favorite songs quietly.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz is a British playwright and author of many works, including Her Naked Skin, which explored the suffragette movement. She co-wrote the film Ida, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film as well as the BAFTA and other film festival awards in 2015.
The Night Season is the end of Strawdog’s 29th season. Next season they’ll be in their new venue at 1802 W. Berenice, formerly home to the late Signal Ensemble Theater. Strawdog’s former home in the 3800 block on Broadway (the “eagles building”) is being demolished and turned into an apartment building.
The Night Season by Strawdog Theatre Company continues at the Factory Theater, 1623 W. Howard St., through June 24. Tickets are $30 for performances Thursday-Sunday.