BWW Review: U.S. Premiere of COOLATULLY at Solas Nua
Solas Nua's COOLATULLY examines Ireland's major export: its people. COOLATULLY looks at the latest surge. After the Celtic Tiger's millennial economic boom went bust, the deep economic recession beginning in 2008 meant that nearly a third of Irish under 25 were without work. Tens of thousands - about 10% of all the young people - emigrated to find better opportunities. Experts say it will take generations for the Irish economy to recover.
What do all those statistics mean in the small rural towns of Ireland? Kilian (David Mavricos), stuck in the village of Coolatully, has few prospects. Once the powerful champion of the hurling team, Kilian has watched so many of his generation leave for opportunities abroad that the tiny town no longer has enough young people left to field a hurling team. The garda station is closed and the post office shuttered.
As friend and lover Eilish O'Connor (Jenny Donovan) announces her departure for a nursing job in Australia - with its sunshine, hope, and barbeques at Bondi Beach - Kilian must consider what is keeping him in Coolatully. It's not a job - he is on the dole although he helps his ma in the family pub as she adjusts to the recent death of Kilian's brother. He knows his friend Jimmy Barrett (Brian Hemmingsen) counts on him for company and to help with his hip replacement, creaky joints, medicine reminders and other indignities of aging. Kilian also wants to remain in Coolatully to welcome back his friend Paudie O'Sullivan when he is released from jail after stealing from the church coffers to pay his car insurance. But when an opportunity to leave presents itself, Kilian must decide if there is enough to tie him to Coolatully when so much seems to indicate that he cannot afford to stay.
Like the struggling Irish youth it depicts, despite its promise and aspirations COOLATULLY just doesn't work, and that's a shame.
The strong cast, compelling topic, and polished production elements simply can't overcome the problematic script. While the dialogue is natural and agile, and the subject is compelling, the play lacks momentum. It doesn't deliver on its heavy exposition; there are frustrating asides and loose ends that are never sufficiently addressed. The central character, Kilian, is mired in indecision and as Kilian continuously cycles through the reasons to stay and the reasons to go, the play becomes overly repetitive. The pattern of indecision dulls the final climactic choice; the audience, which has come to expect Kilian to change his mind, was confused by the conclusion. The production runs without intermission, and although the play has urgency there is no forward drive so 100 minutes in a folding chair feels long.
Yet Solas Nua, and Artistic Director (and COOLATULLY director) Rex Daugherty, should be applauded for taking a risk and nurturing the new work. Too often plays enjoy a shiny, high-profile launch and then languish. New work gains depth, insight, and polish with each public performance as it is translated from the page to the stage. Though performed before in Europe, this marks the American premiere of COOLATULLY and the first time any of playwright Fiona Doyle's work has been produced in the United States. Doyle, who is winner of the Papatango New Writing Prize and other awards, is still early in her career. COOLATULLY clearly reflects the mission of Solas Nua, which means "new light" in Irish; they are dedicated to bringing the best new Irish artistic talents to American audiences.
The central theme of COOLATULLY, the toll of a failing economy and lack of opportunity, is newsworthy. Solas Nua specifically looks through the lens of Ireland, but we need look no further than the U.S.'s own Rust Belt frustrations and curtailed dreams to know the universality of the subject. Throughout the world, the migration of people seeking better prospects has never been more topical.
Director Rex Daugherty has assembled a strong and able cast. Jenny Donovan as Eilish exudes an earthiness and stable practicality. She sees the chance for a promising future and she pursues it. Kiernan McGowan's Paudie as the charismatic guy who has slipped up a time or two with increasing seriousness draws us in. Brian Hemmingsen, who has been nominated for multiple Helen Hayes Awards, delivers a Jimmy who is wise, knowing, caring, and full of life and energy. David Mavricos as Kilian is the play's fulcrum; his actions, doubts and decisions are integral to the play. I wanted to see the character be more fully in the moment and connected to the others although I am uncertain whether this was an actor's tic or a fault in Kilian's character as he fears the future and looks to the past.
The production team uses the limited space of the black box Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint to its fullest. The multi-function, multilevel set designed by Jonathan Dahm Robertson is tight, but effectively moves us from apartment to bar to bedroom to the countryside. Marianne Meadows' lighting works well, defining the changing time, place and mood. Ethan Balis is the sound designer and composer. Robert Croghan's costumes of flannel, wool, and heavy boots remind us these are solid, practical, unassuming people.
COOLATULLY is a provocative work presented with a lot of consideration and heart. Despite its flaws, it is a thought-provoking piece that lingers long after the curtain call.
Runtime: 100 minutes with no intermission; no late seating
COOLATULLY by Fiona Doyle. Performances runs through March 26 with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Performances are at The Mead Theatre Lab/Flashpoint, 916 G St NW. For tickets or for more information, please visit Solas Nua's website here.
Photos by DJ Corey Photography. At top: David Mavricos as Kilian Dempsey; center photo from left to right: Kiernan McGowan, David Mavricos, and Jenny Donavan; next: Brian Hemmingsen and David Mavricos; bottom: Kiernan McGowan and David Mavricos.