A strange, dark metallic-laced cloud hangs high above the stage set against a backlit impressionistic sky, shadowing the lives of characters passing across the Mint Theater’s current production of four one-act plays by Teresa Deevy.
For those familiar with the Irish playwright’s work, this imagery should come as little surprise: contentment, much less happiness, is a rare state of the human condition.
Frustration and loneliness permeate much of her work, implied by one of this evening’s characters: “To my way of seeing, there’s no two people who can to the full comprehend one another.”
This kind of sentiment may have restrained Deevy’s wider popularity. But it earned her affection among certain theatre-goers, who know cheery musicals and happy endings are rarely the stuff of which real life is made.
In unexpected ways, her work was echoing the contemporaneously emerging ideas of Freud that were questioning our own sense of self and truth. Maybe we control the thoughts and words that come out of our mouths and the relations we make. But truly understanding ourselves and our interactions with those around us, to control our own destinies . . . these are far trickier matters we rarely master.
Here in New York, the Mint Theater's artistic director, Jonathan Bank, embarked on the Teresa Deevy Project in 2009 to bring attention to this lost playwright.
The Mint is in the center of the Broadway Theater District and Deevy was by all measures an obscure choice. But Bank’s commitment to her expresses the Mint’s mission, started more than 20 years ago, of finding unknown and neglected work that merits attention because of the timeless ideas it explores.
Bank's affection for the Irish woman is unabashed: "Teresa Deevy is undoubtedly the most brilliant playwright whose work I will ever have the privilege of reintroducing to the world." This has led to three major productions between 2010 and 2013 – Wife to James Whelan, Temporal Powers, and Katie Roche (which this week opens at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin) – along with their publication in two volumes, which include all of her complete short plays.
"She's an understated writer," says Aidan Redmond, who has performed in two of Deevy's previous Mint productions and in all four of the current one-act plays, "crafting words that capture how people truly speak, rewarding those with patience to see her stories through."
As an actor, he’s most intrigued by how the playwright uses pauses in her cadence and narrative. “It’s as if we learn more about her characters by what they don’t say when holding back than the actual lines they do speak.”
In the 1930s, the Abbey Theatre produced six of her plays in as many years. But she fell out of favour with Abbey management when Ernest Blythe established bureaucratic control of the government-funded theatre in the mid-1930s. Without a champion to revive her fortunes, Deevy proceeded to write plays that were rarely published or produced on stage.
When Jonathan Bank told the Deevy family, who still occupy the same home in Waterford in which Teresa had lived and died, that he wanted to explore her literary estate, they were at first reticent. The didn’t believe a New Yorker would come across the Atlantic just to see old typewritten pages and handwritten notes from a largely forgotten playwright.
The title of this evening’s performance in New York on West 42nd Street, “The Suitcase Under the Bed,” informs where Bank found this material.
Bank rarely scores an evening of short plays. This is as much a challenge for him and his cast, many of whom are charged with performing four different characters, as it is for the audience. These pieces are thin slices of life, some brief and straightforward, others more involved. But Bank has choreographed an evening that descends into the darker challenges of relationships and love itself.
The show offers the world premieres of three plays, starting with “Strange Birth,” a simple tale of when love is innocently realized. The second piece, “In the Cellar of My Friend” is a look at misunderstood and unrequited love, with a dash of queasiness thrown in when Deevy decided a father and son should be involved with the same girl.
“Holiday House” is the most chaotic and stinging of the night’s offerings, when faults in marriages begin to show with the reappearance of past loves.
But the final presentation, “The King of Spain’s Daughter,” which the Abbey had staged in 1935, is the most strident and darkest of the evening, as Deevy contrasts the whimsy of the heart with reality. There’s full portions of delusion here-a young, beautiful girl who wants unencumbered freedom without concern for others; a suitor and her father who believes marriage will set her straight.
It may not be readily apparent the path down which director is taking us. But there’s a clue in a refrain that echoes throughout the evening. It’s spoken by one of the wise older characters, which appears in various forms in each of the four of the plays. Essentially it says, we spend 20 years looking forward to marriage and the next 30 years wondering why we did.
The Suitcase Under The Bed runs until September 30 at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Minttheater.org