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Theater Review : Discovering Hidden Corners in ‘Tennessee’

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TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Irish playwright Brian Friel is great because he acknowledges the insufficiency of language. When the talking stops and his characters bow to the power of music--or silence--Friel’s plays overflow with emotion.

In his 1990 play “Dancing at Lughnasa,” which just closed at the South Coast Rep, five sisters resigned to unending rural poverty come alive when a broken-down radio momentarily blasts out a danceable tune. Friel’s 1993 play “Wonderful Tennessee,” in its West Coast debut at the Old Globe, reveals that simple folk tunes and hymns contain a whole canon of profound emotions, even (or maybe particularly) when sung by six friends at 3 a.m. on a chilly stone pier with nothing but a humble accordion for accompaniment.

Terry (George Deloy) has purchased an island off of a northwest Donegal pier, and his friends are waiting to have a look, but the ferryman--Carlin--never arrives. As with any gathering of friends in their 40s, this one is rife with enough problems to fill a soap opera script. Terry’s wife, Berna (Robin Pearson Rose), is being treated for depression, probably because her husband is in love with her sister Angela (Deborah May), who is not only beautiful but, unlike Berna, fertile. Angela’s husband, Frank (Tim Donoghue), is an academic resigned to what he regards as his unimportance and his wife’s attraction to the charismatic Terry. Trish (Deborah Taylor) knows that her husband, accordion player George (Thomas S. Oleniacz), has only three months to live, so she endures his harsh rejections, even though to the others he is the sweetest of men.

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What separates “Wonderful Tennessee” from “Days of Our Lives” is Friel’s attention to the unexpected, hidden corners of these relationships. Under Craig Noel’s sensitive and lucid direction, the ensemble forms a community as intricate and authentic (excepting the accents) as Dublin’s Abbey Theater, the company for whom Friel writes and who performed the play on Broadway last year.

Rose is a heartbreakingly aware Berna, especially when she claims that her nephew has become frightened of her. Rose lets you see the cost of Berna’s depression, what a pleasure this character could have been, almost was and never will be. When she sings a hymn: “O, Mother, I could weep for mirth/Joy fills my heart so fast . . ., “ it is more a wish than a testament, and she is joined most fervently in her song by Angela, the very source of her problems. Friel meticulously respects the unexpected and illogical allegiances of melodrama.

Taylor is an affecting Trish, a woman who loves to prompt the others to tell stories but who unconsciously rewrites her own tale. She recalls her wedding day, attributing the groom’s lateness to his playing in a band. When Terry points out that George had in fact given up his band three weeks earlier to better support her, she crumbles, astounded at the insistence of her own false memory and her husband’s sacrifice.

Friel strips the story bare by stranding his characters on the pier overnight. The elusive island in the foggy distance stands for the state of being almost happy that Berna believes is man’s eternal fate. The food in their hamper is ridiculously exotic (brandied peaches and Romanian truffles), but it doesn’t fulfill their basic needs, just as the island will never change their lives in any concrete way. The warmth of their community--despite its intrigue--is a gathering against the coming cold of night, and the imminent death of their friend George. In Oleniacz’s moving portrait, George’s deep sadness is evoked through his accordion playing; his poor bandaged throat hardly scratches out the few words he can manage.

When Friel’s characters attempt to express their feelings, poetry rises from his words like the fog from set designer Greg Lucas’ appropriately inhospitable stone pier. But just as often they are driven by the need for ceremony that haunts much of Friel’s work. A passing-the-time game with stones turns organically into a rite of prayer. A life-preserver stand in the form of a wooden cross becomes--without a word from anyone--a shrine on which the characters hang pieces of their clothing to mark the time they’ve spent there, and, more importantly, the emotions they’ve felt there. When Terry refuses to leave his shirt, the others turn on him with the savagery of the children in “Lord of the Flies”--their behavior just as inexplicable and also as strangely understandable.

“Wonderful Tennessee” is somewhat less dramatic than its plot might imply. The emotional underpinnings take time to establish, and, likewise, the epiphanies take time to unfold. This play requires patience, and a love for, and familiarity with Friel’s work doesn’t hurt either. But the payoff is a deep, if melancholy, evening that is, ironically, a writer’s recognition of the need to mark our passage with something other than words.

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“Wonderful Tennessee,” the Old Globe’s Lowell Davis Festival Theatre, Simon Edison Center for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park, San Diego, Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Ends Aug. 7. $23-$34. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

George Deloy: Terry

Robin Pearson: Rose Berna

Thomas S. Oleniacz: George

Deborah Taylor: Trish

Tim Donoghue: Frank

Deborah May: Angela

An Old Globe Theatre production. By Brian Friel. Directed by Craig Noel. Set by Greg Lucas. Costumes by Andrew V. Yelusich. Lights by Kent Dorsey. Sound by Jeff Ladman. Production stage manager Douglas Pagliotti.

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