John Bull’s Other Island, Irish Repertory of Chicago, at Victory Gardens Theater. The title may be dated–England controls much less of Ireland than it did in 1904–but George Bernard Shaw’s brilliant script illuminates the truths behind the lies separating these islanders. There’s next to no action to distract from the sparkling dialogue: the play’s colorful characters are essentially sounding boards for Shaw’s delightful paradoxes and topsy-turvy dialectic.
This well-cast Irish Repertory ensemble bring to the play’s sprawling debate perfect accents and a clipped pace. Though the performance is nearly three hours and includes many of Shaw’s stage notes, it seldom wears out its welcome. Director Lawrence MacGowan shapes Shaw’s scattershot talkfest into memorable encounters. Robert Kaercher has jolly good fun as the ruthless English developer, a philistine twit who conquers the village of Roscullen as his nation did Ireland’s people. He also means to appropriate the mysterious Nora, played by Laura Scott Wade with an affecting mix of ardor and ruefulness. Tom Bateman offers Shavian fireworks as Larry Doyle, an Irish emigre (like Shaw) enraged at how the habit of dreaming has made the sentimental Irish succumb to British hypocrisy.
Thanks to Bill McGough, Shaw’s most interesting creation here is a Franciscan-like priest full of dark prophecies about Irish cupidity and English exploitation. McGough combines Old Testament fervor with an elegiac delicacy that’s as poetic as Shaw gets. But then, he is writing about Ireland.