For the past four years, Keegan Theatre has been increasing its fan base overseas.
The Arlington-based theater group has taken a production to Ireland every summer since 1999. Each year they’ve played more and more Irish theaters, drawing larger and larger Irish audiences.
This year Keegan shared Tennessee William’s legendary "memory play," "The Glass Menagerie" with their Irish fans. This month, they brought the production back to Arlington, and it’s now onstage at the Clark Street Playhouse, just north of Crystal City.
Keegan co-founders Mark Rhea, the group’s artistic director, and actor/playwright Eric Lucas each have a strong sense of identification with things Irish.
Founded as "The Andrew Keegan Theatre" in 1997 (a name that came from the first names of Rhea and Lucas’ sons, chosen in part because they had an Irish sound to them), Keegan original charter included a goal of presenting at least one Irish play each season.
This has led to productions of the works of playwrights such as Brian Friel, William Butler Yeats and J.M. Synge. They have also sponsored an Irish actor/playwright, Little John Nee, as he presented his show "The Derry Boat" at the Rosslyn Spectrum in 2000. That production earned Nee a nomination for the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Actor in a Non-Resident Production.
<b>IN 1999,</b> Keegan was invited to bring their production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" to the Town Hall Theatre in Galway, the largest city on the west coast of the emerald isle.
Why present a play by an American Playwright? At the time, Rhea said "We can’t take an Irish play over there, but we can take an American classic and show the Irish how strong the ties are between our two theatrical traditions."
It turns out to have been a good choice to present a work by Williams, an American author with strong Irish ties of his own.
Irish audiences had a positive reaction to the Williams drama, and the next year, Keegan was asked back. That time, they exported their production of Sam Shepard’s "Fool for Love."
They played two theaters, qualifying them for the record as the first professional American theater company ever to tour the West of Ireland.
Keegan was back in Ireland in 2001, with another Williams play, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." This year "The Glass Menagerie" played in five theaters, covering all regions in the Republic of Ireland as well as a stop in Armagh, in Northern Ireland.
<b>IN THE DUBLIN</b> suburb of Tallaght, as theatergoers gathered before the curtain at the Civic Theatre, we asked some of them why they had come to see an American company perform an American play.
Some said that they hadn’t realized that Keegan was an American Company. Others were repeat visitors, who had seen their production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" last year and were impressed enough to want a second look at Keegan. Still others said they thought it would be interesting to see what different kind of production an American company might offer.
During the performance it was clear that the audience was caught up in the play and its story of an abandoned mother of two grown but hardly mature children, a painfully shy daughter and an embittered son.
At intermission, we asked people if they had experienced any difficulty with the American accents of the cast. None had any difficulty at all.
"Of course not," one man said, "we have TV" - much of the programming on Irish television is American dramas and comedy series.
<b>RETURNING KEEGAN FANS</b> saw some familiar faces onstage in "Glass Menagerie," but local theatergoers will surely recognize the name of the director, Brian Hemmingsen. His production of Williams’ 1945 play is a strong piece of ensemble acting, sensitively directed.
The play centers on Amanda Wingfield, who has been recently abandoned by her husband and now lives in St. Louis with the two children she has raised alone. Linda High is marvelous in the role, making the character’s pecularities understandable, and making sense of Amanda’s despicable treatment of her children without making it too sympathetic.
It’s not an easy balance to achieve, for the part of Amanda can be overdramatized as a martyr or as a monster. Finding the humanity in the role, High makes it the centerpiece of the play.
Rhea, who has performed in all four of Keegan’s Irish tours, plays her grown son Tom. He serves as the shows narrator, but also provides a dramatic engine for the story as he contemplates leaving home.
If he stays, he knows he will be stifled in his mother’s house. If he leaves, he knows that both he and his mother will see it as an abandonment, like his father’s departure, rather than the normal process of a grown son going out on his own.
Rhea adopts a fairly stilted narration style in order to contrast with the barely controlled emotionalism of the son.
<b>SUSAN GREVENGOED,</b> Keegan’s Production Manager, plays Laura, Amanda Wingfield’s grown daughter who has been severely crippled emotionally by her mother’s treatment.
The contrast between the shy, withdrawn character she creates here and the outgoing, bawdy Maggie she played in last year’s "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" caused more than one audience member in Ireland to remark on her ability to create characters with such offsetting personalities.
Her performance as Laura was nicely nuanced when the show first began performances in Ireland, but it has taken on even greater depth and texture as the run has continued here in the Clark Street Playhouse.
Jon Townsend completes the cast as Jim O’Connor, a friend Tom brings home to dinner who sets in motion a disastrous chain of events.
Townsend, who gives a straight-forward take on the roll, has had extensive experience with the Manassas theater company Vpstart Crow, where Grevengoed also has been active.
The production traveled with the set designed by local artist/actor Richard Mancini. Knowing that the set would have to adapt to varied stages, he designed a collection of spaces – a porch, a dining room, a living room – separated by hanging banners with images important to the play: a ship, flowers, a glass unicorn.
Audiences in Virginia can now see what so pleased audiences in Ireland. The production is playing in repertory Keegan’s joint production with the Fountainhead Theatre production of "Come Back Little Sheba" which plays Saturday matinees and Sunday through Tuesday evenings.