It seems everyone would like to be Irish in the month of March. The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day has, with the help of Hallmark and the local pub, become a monthlong event. Even beer and bagels—two things that should never be green—become miraculously emerald in hue around the 17th of March. These practices could arguably be deemed overkill—a commercial attempt to squeeze every drop of Irish blood, however small, out of people who cannot properly pronounce “Slainte.” However, Storm Theatre’s timely offering of Dion Boucicault’s Arrah-na-Pogue could only be called overkill by the most hardened St. Patrick’s Day cynic.
Set during the Rebellion of 1798, the play, billed as a “classic Irish comedy,” is handled skillfully by director Peter Dobbins and his thoroughly entertaining cast, offering the audience a sweet glimpse past March’s ever-present “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” t-shirts into a world where love, loyalty and a good joke win the day.
The play opens (as a good Irish romance should) in moonlight at the ruins of St. Kevin’s Abbey. Beamish Mac Coul (Jonathan Blakely), a leader in the Rebellion, is fleeing to safety in France, unwilling to put his men in danger. Tall and dashing, the audience soon learns that Beamish has strong attachments to two women.
Fanny Power (Christine Bullen), the well-to-do ward of Colonel O’Grady, is Beamish’s long-standing secret fiancé, with whom he intends to elope before leaving for France. The other woman is Arrah Meelish (Nicola Murphy), Beamish’s foster sister, who has been secretly sheltering the rebel in a cabin on her farm. Arrah is to marry Shaun the Post (Philip Mills) the very next day, but has been keeping Beamish’s presence a secret from Shaun in order to protect him from becoming an accomplice.
As Beamish leaves the ruins that night, he waylays a man named Michael Feeney (Paul Nugent) and robs him of his money. Feeney elicits little sympathy for his plight, for he quickly shows himself to be an opportunistic weasel of a rent collector with an unhealthy obsession with Arrah.
Beamish ends up giving Feeney’s money to Arrah as a wedding present and a thank you for all she has done, but when Feeney discovers his bank notes in Arrah’s possession, he quickly sees a way to ruin her reputation and win her for himself. As the play progresses and secrets are revealed, the two couples find their relationships tested on a very public stage.
On the whole, the charm and enthusiasm of the cast is infectious. As Shaun the Post, Philip Mills’ sincere conveyance of his character’s delight in his new bride combines with an impish twinkle in his eyes to make it impossible for the audience not to root for him whole-heartedly. Nicola Murphy rises to the challenge of portraying a woman worthy of such unswerving devotion, giving Arrah an irresistible blend of sweetness, spine, and sense of fun.
Jonathan Blakely portrays Beamish with confidence and humility, compelling the audience to see why the other characters are willing to risk so much for him, and the impressive Irish dancing and singing by Jennie McGuinness and Michelle Kafel, respectively, give the wedding scene just the right combination of spirit and wistfulness. But perhaps most impressive is Paul Nugent’s smart use of physicality and tonality—artistic choices that make Michael Feeney instantly dislikeable. From the moment Nugent scampers onstage, he whines and leers until his presence becomes tangibly repulsive.
Arrah-na-Pogue is not an easy show to mount. The tone could very easily slip into schmaltz and lose its charm. But Peter Dobbins’ direction allows the audience to tune in to the lyricism of Boucicault’s script without over-steeping them in Irish sentimentality. Yes, stereotypes are all there to be found, but the simplicity and sincerity with which they are handled allow the story to unfold as a fable, not a caricature.
The production transforms the Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame from a cold church basement into a dynamic performance space, with the intimate setting forcing the audience to engage with the action onstage. The community that the characters live in is vital to their story, and the staging allows the audience to become a part of the characters’ world, witnessing the joy of Arrah and Shaun’s wedding and the tension of Shaun’s trial as more than mere outside observers.
The story of Arrah-na-Pogue offers a thoughtful meditation on the nature of love and trust. Arrah and Shaun’s unshakeable devotion to each other arises from their mutual belief in the innate good of their beloved and their consequent commitment to putting the other first. This admirable love does not pave an easy road to happiness for the couple, but instead gives them something better—the profound easiness of soul that comes from knowing, absolutely, that you are loved.
Their love has the strength not just to endure adversity, but to blossom in the face of it. Conversely, the lack of faith displayed by Fanny not only threatens her own relationship, but also would have undermined a bond weaker than Arrah and Shaun’s. Fanny and Beamish’s chance at a happy ending results from Beamish’s ability to forgive her and accept her love even with its flaws.
Arrah-na-Pogue is not without relevance to the contemporary Irish flavor of March, with the character of Fanny Power most closely capturing the modern St. Patrick’s Day cynic. Drawn in by the romance and gallantry of Beamish, she is nonetheless unable to believe the promise of what he offers her. It takes Fanny the longest to understand the beauty of Arrah-na-Pogue’s message. The kind of love that endures is the love that dares to challenge adversity and come out the other end stronger.
It is the kind of love that is immortalized in Irish ballads and fairy tales, and that requires a great leap of faith to accept. This faith, perhaps more than a draft of good stout or a grinning leprechaun, is what we should focus on during this month of St. Patrick’s Days.
Arrah-na-Pogue runs through April 2nd at the Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30p.m., and Saturdays at 2p.m. Tickets are available at www.smarttix.com or by phone at 212-868-4444.
Monica R. Weigel is a teaching artist and director in New York City, and works as the Education Coordinator at Park Avenue Armory. She holds a Masters in Educational Theatre from New York University.