"There's a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed." So says the sharp-tongued Pegeen Mike in J.M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. There's also a great gap between Synge's dense, Shakespeare-meets-County Mayo dialogue and our modern ears, but somehow, in this rare revival at Artists Repertory Theatre, nothing gets lost in translation.
Synge's satirical masterpiece tells the story of Christy Mahon, a young man who earns the admiration not only of the aforementioned Pegeen but of the entire populace of a tiny Irish hamlet when he announces that he has just murdered his father. It's a decidedly odd premise, and when Playboy debuted in Dublin in 1907, it gave rise to riots in the streets. Irish Catholics took umbrage at what they saw as Synge's disrespectful depiction of their fellow countrymen, and it's true that many of the denizens surrounding Pegeen—including her father, her fiance and a handful of drunks and slatterns—do not come off as the brightest kerosene in the lamp. But Synge's point wasn't to ridicule rural Micks; it was to skewer humankind's ridiculous obsession with celebrity culture.
Christy is initially revered for his "mighty spirit and gamey heart": Pegeen is eager to dump her God-fearing sop of a betrothed for the more manly Mahon. But he discovers the pitfalls of sudden fame when his father unexpectedly shows up, sporting a bloody head bandage and spoiling for revenge. Realizing they've been duped by a tall tale, the town turns on Christy and satire gives way first to slapstick and, finally, to poignant tragedy.
Playboy needs a deft touch. Thanks to a talented cast and Dámaso Rodriguez's inspired direction, not to mention excellent design—the set, lighting, costumes and sound meld wonderfully to create the intimate and transporting feel of the Auld Sod—this production hits all the right notes. Amy Newman is perfect as Pegeen, whose rough edges are briefly softened by love. With her air of long-suffering, no-nonsense wit, Newman wins the audience to her side instantly. Chris Murray, meanwhile, is a revelation as the playboy, inhabiting that winning space between cunning and vulnerability. Other standouts include Isaac Lamb as Pegeen's hapless fiance and Jill Van Velzer as the sometimes scheming, sometimes altruistic Widow Quin. Synge's dialogue is lyrical, meandering and thick as a furzy ditch, but the performers handle it splendidly.
Synge wrote Playboy partially as an antidote to shallow musical comedy, which he saw as the enemy to the true joy that live theater should provide. He was sure that, by sticking close to reality, he could create something "superb and wild." This production is both of those things.
SEE IT: The Playboy of the Western World is at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278. 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Sundays and 2 pm Sundays through June 22. $25-$55.