BWW Review: The Pond Theatre Company's THE NATURALISTS Showcases Quiet Lives and the Search for Self
The Pond is currently playing host to the world premiere of The Naturalists by Irish playwright Jaki McCarrick who is making her own New York debut with the company. The production is largely successful in its goals, scarring the range of emotions as the audience gets a glimpse into the quiet yet troubled lives of a group of Irish people living in the countryside.
In the first moments, we meet the brothers Billy (Tim Ruddy) and Francis (John Keating). Their differences are immediately present as Billy kicks off his boots, tracking mud and less savory things into the house while Francis carefully arranges his own outside. He then begins to tidy up the beer can riddled mobile home (not caravan) while Billy is sat in front of the TV.
Francis laments how it would be nice to have a woman's help around the place to keep things clean and help the brothers focus on renovating the big house on their land so they can leave the mobile home.
Along comes Josie (Sarah Street), a young girl with dreams of being a dancer/dance teacher. Her influence is quick, and her connection to the land quicker, as the space transforms into something liveable and even warm. Billy is hesitant to accept her while she and Francis bond over the beauty of the Irish landscape and life in the remote area.
Francis has a deep passion for nature, calls himself a naturalist and teaches students about ecology. He teaches Josie the names of the plants, flowers, and trees. The trio finds hesitant peace and solidarity, a group of relative misfits living off of the land, until the truth of Francis's past begin to overshadow the merriment.
In 1979, Francis was a perpetrator in an IRA bombing of 18 soldiers, the mastermind behind the attack. He was sent to prison for 12 years and came back a shell of himself, forever seeking penance. Billy left veterinary school to help his brother, while their mother left them and never returned.
Past meets present when John-Joe Doherty (Michael Mellamphy), a friend of Francis in his IRA days, comes to stay. With Francis in need of aid following his release from prison, Billy had fallen into trouble with John-Joe who has now come to collect. His wild threats wreak havoc on the trio who are forced into quick action and revealing confessions in order to return to some semblance of pastoral peace.
Jaki McCarrick's play builds ambience with every word. The characters are definitive and haunted. When they share secrets or observations, it's just enough to feel satisfying yet realistic. The plot gets slightly muddied in the middle, but simple things like the mirroring between the act openings are carefully curated and despite the longer run-time, no moment feels out of place. The final scene plays with a beautiful sense of optimistic finality while leaving space for further breath from the characters and their lives.
The performers feed off of the rich text, bringing to life characters who are at once charming yet natural. John Keating's portrayal of Francis is so touching in its enthusiasm and gentleness. Sarah Street showcases a delicate strength as Josie and plays with the dynamic of the two brothers with beautiful plausibility.
Colleen Clinton and Lily Dorment's direction is cinematic in its attention to detail and aesthetic sense of scene. Characters make wonderful use of the space with multiple points of entrance and exit and cleanly defined locations that never feel confined to the set pieces.
Scenic design by Chika Shumizu, lighting design by Caitlin Smith Rapoport, costume design by Grier Coleman, and sound design by Christopher Ross-Ewart all work flawlessly to build the world of the play. The Irish countryside is alive in the blackbox from the cowpie stained living room to the lake to what lay in the characters' view as they peered out beyond the audience. Smith Rapoport's moonlight and fireside scenes were particularly effective along with the glow of the television, while Ross-Ewart's clever use of aural movement gave the sense of cars and scooters coming and going, a pack of swans flying overhead, and music that flowed from a record player to suddenly encase the room.
The Pond Theatre Company's production of The Naturalists is both quiet and loud, a lovely tale of making peace. The show runs September 7-23 at Walkerspace (46 Walker Street). Visit ThePondTheatre.org to purchase tickets.
Photo Credit: Richard Termine