Written in 1948, The Mountains Look Different by Micheál mac Liammóir created a sensation when it hit the stage. With a daring take on a familiar narrative - the lure of the noisy city vs. the monotonous quiet of the countryside - this unsettling tale of isolation and mystery walks softly and carries a big secret.
The play, produced by Mint Theater Company at Theatre Row, opens on a remote country cottage nestled at the base of mountains in the west of Ireland. Bonfires dot the distant hills, in celebration of a summer harvest festival. The set by Vicki R. Davis evokes both depth and closeness in turns, well suited to the anticipation that hangs in the air. You almost cannot breathe. Lighting Designer Christian DeAngelis adds to that breathlessness, shading the distant mountains in hues of misty green to blue to pink, with a whisper of moon above.
Into this stillness, a swank car - an artefact of the world beyond - screeches to a halt offstage. Matthew Conroy (Paul O’Brien) has come to tell the farm’s owner, Martin Grealish (Con Horgan) of the marriage of Conroy’s niece Bairbre (Brenda Meaney) to Grealish’s son Tom (Jesse Pennington). As stony as his cottage, Grealish, quietly delivering a diatribe in which he dismisses all of his children as useless or worse, is unimpressed. One cannot tell if Grealish hates his son or just distrusts the whole world which, judging from his attitude, has focused its cosmic energies on making him miserable. Running the gamut from bitter to vindictive, but in a hushed voice that doesn’t jibe with its sentiment, Horgan doesn't really makes you feel the burn.
Enter Brenda Meaney and the stage immediately springs to life. Elegant in Costume Designer Andrea Varga’s period dresses, Meaney is stunning and magnetic, filling the stage effortlessly. As Bairbre’s relentlessly innocent husband, Pennington does not match her intensity. He has also made the peculiar choice to totter around and speak his lines without moving his lips. This choice pretty much distracts from everything he says, when you can understand him. In Act II Tom has occasion to sing. Pennington’s beautiful lyric tenor gives more insight into his character than much of the rest of his characterization. It’s as if for a moment he has set Tom free.
The eventual arrival of a group of Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals further muddies the theatrical waters. Just how many people in this village are intellectually challenged? In the tumult it is difficult to make out what people are saying. Of course, this is the land of small cottages and gatherings by the fire, so a little crowding is normal. The mechanicals seem to be competing for who can be weirdest, to no perceivable end. Batty (Liam Forde) is clearly the classic product of late birth/too limited a gene pool. And young Birdin (McKenna Quigley Harrington) with daisies in her hair; is she daft or just super excited? Barley (Daniel Marconi), the reliable farmhand is the sanest one of all. Marconi evens out the pace with a consistent performance that at times leads the action.
The biggest problem is that the play peaks too early, at the end of Act I, in a menacing encounter between Bairbre and the elder Grealish. For much of Act II Meaney finds herself on a rescue mission to keep the energy going through the end of the play. As she carries the show, Meaney operates on a completely different level from the rest of the cast. In their defence, she would outclass any but the fiercest of actors.
Despite these inconsistencies, The Mountains Look Different is worthy, at times gripping theater. Escaping big city trauma to her fantasy of quiet security in the countryside of her birth, Bairbre discovers her longed for refuge is actually a prison. The question remains, can Bairbre wrestle free and find happiness. Will hers be the first life story to break the cycle?
(Photo by Todd Cerveris)
"What’s alluring here is the storytelling, by both Mac Liammóir and the actors, whose across-the-board restraint roots the characters in reality throughout. And if you know something about Mac Liammóir (1899-1978), Bairbre’s determination to remake herself takes on further resonance."
Laura Collins-Hughes for New York Times