Wife To James Whelan
nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
August 21, 2010
As they have always set out to do, the Mint Theatre has again dusted off a play that should never have been forgotten. Teresa Deevy's Wife to James Whelan is overflowing with charm and humanity, but soars on the wings of perfect direction and a fine ensemble of actors.
In Wife to James Whelan, Deevy focuses her pen on the life that binds a group of residents in a small Irish town. At the top, James Whelan, a young worker, is called to a promising job in Dublin, a move he's certain will lead to a bright, rich future. Staying behind is Nan Bowers, a tough but fiery girl desired by Whelan, though not enough to follow Nan's repeated requests to stay. As Act Two rises, seven years have passed, and among the group from Kilbeggan, much has changed. James has opened a promising bus company, while Nan, now a widow, has fallen into poverty, forcing her to beg James for work. Her desire to survive has surpassed her desire for James, and it is this change in their relationship that forces James to confront the question of who he is versus who he wants to be. Beyond Nan, James is also keeping company with the now wealthy and privileged daughter of his former boss, as well as Kate, a devoted confidant who has always longed to be more than an ear for James to bend.
From the play's title, it seems that this search for the "right" woman is what Deevy hoped to focus on. The play, however, is much more than this. In addition to its crisp, almost modern dialogue, I found the work to be very effective when viewed through James's experience, as he finds that the gold ring which he set out to grab isn't enough to bring him contentment. Between that journey and the evolution of the bond shared by Deevy's characters, Wife to James Whelan is a wonderful story to watch unfold.
In his direction of Wife, Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank strikes the perfect tone, allowing Deevy's scenes of humor and tension to exist as equals. In this way, the play mirrors life, as Deevy clearly intended it to do. Bank's staging is equally impressive. The actors' movements are purposeful and efficient, yet natural and instinctive. Like David Cromer's work with Our Town, Bank's efforts again remind me that this is what good direction looks like. But if Bank gets high marks for one thing above all else with this production, it is for his brilliant casting.
Assembled for the purpose of presenting Deevy's long forgotten work is one of the finest ensembles I have seen on a New York stage. The exchanges between these performers are those of a resident theatre company with a long history of working together. This ease is how Wife should be, as Deevy created the work for the famed company of actors at Ireland's Abbey Theatre. In each role, the ensemble does all Deevy could have intended and more. As the title character, Shawn Fagan moves well between James's competing selves—one that wants the happiness he had as a poor worker, the other longing to be the industry titan he believes he should become. As his best friend Kate, Rosie Benton is especially brilliant. Combining charm with a quiet grit, all wrapped in a deep but realistic longing for James, Benton has us hanging on her every word. The scene between Fagan and Benton in Act Two is a true delight to watch. In helping to round out the play, Aidan Redmond and Jon Fletcher do fine work as James's employees, both of whom would like financial success, though never at the expense of others. As no one in this cast deserves to be left out, high mentions also go to Jeremy S. Holm, Janie Brookshire, Thomas Matthew Kelley, and Liv Rooth.
If you haven't heard of Teresa Deevy, you're not alone. In this regard, the Mint Theatre has done a great service to us all in bringing forth Wife to James Whelan. That they have also used Deevy's intimate work to create a thoroughly enjoyable night of theatre is a bonus, though no small one at that. Here's to hoping it isn't another half century before we once again are invited into the beautiful world of Teresa Deevy.