Ireland’s uneasy neutrality during World War II, the country’s deep-rooted conflict with Britain and the divide between Catholics and Protestants serve as both backdrop and catalyst for one Irish family’s personal struggles in a solid staging of Frank McGuinness’ seriocomic, Chekhovian domestic drama, “Dolly West’s Kitchen,” running through Dec. 4 at Theatre Banshee in Burbank.
Director McKerrin Kelly’s observant approach, a fully committed cast and earthy humor prevent the play from sagging under the weight of its heavier dramatic notes. What at length boils to the surface is both expected and unexpected, albeit with a too-contemporary explication of issues of sexual identity.
Of the three adult West siblings, only independent Dolly (a quietly compelling Kirsten Kollender) left the comfortable family home in County Donegal near the Ulster border. Studying art at Trinity College, she became a successful restaurateur in Italy until the rise of Mussolini, and prudence, brought her back.
Set in the family’s kitchen, the play begins four years after Dolly’s return. The household consists of her increasingly dissatisfied sister Esther (Kacey Camp), their tormented younger brother Justin (an achingly sensitive Brett Mack), Esther’s hapless husband Ned (Greg Bryan), bubbly teenage maid Anna (Natalie Hope MacMillan)and Rima, the ribald, outspoken matriarch of the West clan, a force of nature memorably played by stand-out Casey Kramer.
As Ireland clings to neutrality, precariously positioned with its strategically valuable ports between Allied Forces and Axis powers, the Wests are engaged in intense personal battles of their own.
Ned and Justin have joined the volunteer Irish Army and Justin’s angry nationalism, fed by widespread fears of an eventual British invasion from the north, has risen to a fever pitch. Esther, restless and desiring something else and something more, resents Dolly’s freedom and is openly contemptuous of her stolid but devoted husband. Anna, the product of an abusive Catholic orphanage upbringing, carries unexpected iron beneath her veneer of girlish innocence.
Into the simmering mix comes Dolly’s bisexual former British lover, Alec (Shawn Savage), newly enlisted and stationed at nearby Derry. He hopes to reunite with Dolly, but is weighted with his own fears and uncertainties.
Then Rima stirs the pot. Discerning the needs of her struggling children with startling compassion and clarity — despite her salty tongue and whiskey-spiked humor — she brings home a pair of American soldiers from a local pub: openly gay Marco (Cameron J. Oro) and his taciturn straight cousin Jamie (Martin Doordan).
Independent, tart-tongued Dolly cooks rationed food and whatever the hens and garden provide. The family and newcomers gather in her kitchen to drink, share meals and angst, squabble, hark back to the past, fear the future and begin to speak truths to each other and themselves.
The facileness of an epilogue providing a wrap-up for each character in the aftermath of the war is mitigated by tenderness and a prevailing sense of hope.
The professionalism of director and cast is echoed in Dan Conroy’s country kitchen design, Jessica Dalager’s deft costumes, expressive lighting design by Bosco Flanagan and Mark McClain Wilson’s clean ambient sound.
What: “Dolly West’s Kitchen”
Where: Theatre Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank.
When: 8 p.m. Fri-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 4. $20. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Info: (818) 846-5323 and theatrebanshee.org.
LYNNE HEFFLEY is a Los Angeles-based freelance arts writer and theater reviewer.