Chicago Cooperative Stage

It’s surprising that the plays of Irishman Brian Friel are produced so often in 1988. Unlike many of the popular plays of this decade, Friel’s plays have no glitz; there are no lasers, no fancy costumes, and they don’t offer the kind of escapism we’ve become so fond of. In addition, Friel’s plays look like short stories with actors added rather than pieces written for the theater. His trademark is long monologues (which sometimes reach as long as 30 or 40 minutes). You’d think this style would try the patience of an 80s audience. We’re accustomed to short vignettes and snappy dialogue–thanks to television, which climaxes every seven or eight minutes for a commercial.

If an audience can follow a train of thought this long (and since Friel’s plays continue to be produced it seems that they can) they’ll find that this production of Friel’s 1967 Lovers can say something that goes beyond TV’s superficial fare, and the theater that emulates it.

Lovers is a set of two complementary one-acts, “Winners” and “Losers.” Both deal with frustration and dashed expectations. In “Winners” we are audience to a meeting of two young lovers, school kids who are to be married in three weeks’ time (she is pregnant)–as soon as they take their final exams. They meet on a hill overlooking their hometown of Ballymore to study for the exams but end up doing just about everything else. Mag, a poor student to begin with, would much rather discuss the couple’s future together; she babbles on while Joe (James Marsters), who escaped expulsion for his part in the pregnancy only because he’s an excellent student, does his best to ignore her.

There is a strong sense in their conversation and the scene itself that this is just an ordinary day for the lovers. This feeling is accentuated by two emotionless commentators, sitting on either side of the stage, who provide us with family histories, weather reports, and other statistical mundanities, until they indifferently report the drowning of the couple who sit before us.

This information comes about three-quarters of the way through the act, which means that we watch the two tragically fight, make up, discuss their future, and ultimately run off to set sail for a nearby island, all with the knowledge of their impending deaths.

The commentators return to their mundane details, this time about the deaths, and we are left with a disturbing statement about fate and the degree (or lack of it) the average person affects the world in which he lives. We, the spectators, are helpless, as unable to warn the two as we are to detect the tragic tricks of fate in our own futures.

Not even Friel’s strong writing can carry this show without an actor who can sustain a monologue for a full act without making it feel like an eternity. Chicago Cooperative avoided this pitfall by casting Liane Davidson as Mag. She is energetic, spritely, sympathetic, and completely believable, a perfect choice for a Friel play. Her counterpart, James Marsters as Joe, does not fare as well, but because Davidson becomes the focus her energy seems to be enough for both of them.

The second one-act, “Losers,” echoes the first, but from a different perspective. What begins in a comic vein ends in death, this time the death of the spirit. Andy Tracey’s courtship of Hanna Wilson is touching and warm. The couple, though not young, pursue their relationship with youthful energy. The only glitch in their romantic plans is Hanna’s mother, a devoutly religious bedridden woman who has turned the family home into a shrine to her favorite saint, Philomena. She proves to be an unwelcome obstacle to the courtship–whenever things in the living room get too quiet, she rings a bell beckoning Hanna to her side. Andy and Hanna plot to carry on their “romantic” activities while keeping up a conversational tone for her mother’s benefit. Unable to hold a coherent conversation, though, the couple try to recite poetry. Unfortunately Andy only knows the words to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and Hanna is reduced to grocery lists. Together, fighting the foes of oppressive relations and religion, they are frustrated but happy.

Unlike in “Winners,” here we are allowed to see the death, the downfall. When the church decrees that no Saint Philomena ever existed, Andy thinks he has one on Hanna’s manipulative mother. But his gleeful presentation of the news loses him everything. Hanna thinks him cruel, her mother simply chooses another saint, and he becomes trapped without an ally. He has played his long-awaited ace and lost.

Friel’s titles say quite a bit about the nature of relationships and perhaps about his homeland. The winners die, but at a time when their lives are peaking, when all seems possible. Those who lose do so bereft of hope and spirit.

As in the first act, “Losers” is told mostly in monologue form by Barry Chessick’s Andy. As Friel’s speakers often do, Chessick directs his early comedic moments directly to individual members of the audience. When this is done well, as it is here, this very effective device gives the audience a stake in the action and clearly defines the author’s intentions as to where sympathies should lie.

Director David Gurdian’s production of Lovers is warm and sweet but at the same time it makes important points about what is really important in this world–the creation and protection of spirit.