By Gary Mitchell
Directed by Jeri Frederickson
Produced by Irish Theatre of Chicago
Playing at The Den Theatre, Chicago
Journey to Northern Ireland Like Visiting a Different Planet
When Gary Mitchell’s play In a Little World of Our Own was first produced in February of 1998, it established him as one of the first major contemporary playwrights of Northern Ireland. Debuting only months before the Good Friday Agreement, In a Little World of Our Own probes a question that has been at the forefront of tragedians’ mind since the time of Aeschylus: whether laws are the best tool for establishing a just peace. Even with the end of The Troubles in sight, the characters in Mitchell’s drama, set in his own hometown of Rathcoole, exist in a world of clannish retaliation and communal violence. Transplanted to Irish Theatre of Chicago in 2016, the drama becomes a thriller that unfolds with a feeling of inevitability, and which depends on assertions about the culture in Rathcoole that sound very odd to outsiders.
Three brothers are young Loyalist men on the verge of transition. Their mother is dying, and the eldest, Gordon (Jeff Duhigg), is getting married to a woman, Deborah (Jodi Kingsley), for whom Protestant affiliation is more than just a political and ethnic marker. The youngest brother, Richard (Gage Wallace), is mentally impaired, and while Gordon has taken it upon himself to be Richard’s disciplinarian, the dangerous middle brother, Ray (Matthew Isler), dotes on him. Gordon would prefer to have Richard move in with him and Deborah, but Richard wants to stay with Ray, and Ray insists on keeping the house after their mother passes, even though he says he plans to live exclusively on welfare.
Richard’s intellectual impairment is relatively mild, but his emotional immaturity is a major problem. When under stress, he flies into a violent rage. Ray and Gordon don’t see eye-to-eye on how much freedom to give Richard, either, and Ray insists on letting Richard go to a party hosted by a girl he likes. Gordon doesn’t like that; besides that the girl isn’t really interested in Richard romantically, she’s the daughter of a notorious militia captain. Indeed, disaster strikes. Ray brings a terrified Richard home later that night, announcing that the girl has been raped and beaten into a coma. Though he blames it on a Catholic boy she was making out with, he and Richard behave very suspiciously, and he repeatedly warns Richard not to do any talking, or he’ll get in trouble. Ray says he believes that people will be prejudiced because of Richard’s disability to believe he’s the one responsible, and the neighborhood go-between, Walter (Robert Kauzlaric), arrives to conduct his own investigation, since everybody rules out going to the police. Ray wants to torture the Catholic boy into confessing, but Walter agrees only retaliation against Richard can save the family.
Jeri Frederickson, Irish Theatre of Chicago’s associate artistic director, does an outstanding job of establishing the feel of the location. Merje Veski’s scenic design resembles The Den Theatre’s homey lobby, and Thomas Dixon’s pre-show music appropriately includes eerie pipe organ recordings. Mitchell’s dialogue repeatedly emphasizes the lawlessness of the region. During the opening scene, Walter agrees with Ray that the militia captain is too powerful, but when Ray describes himself as having done some juvenile delinquents a favor by breaking their bones, Walter tries to subtly steer the conversation towards something less controversial. The play’s moral dilemma comes not only from the uncertainty of establishing who is responsible for the rape and beating, but also the certainty of extrajudicial retaliation. These characters are used to negotiating and doling out violence at every turn.
All five actors turn in strong performances. Credit should especially go to Gage Wallace, who plays Richard’s disability with enough nuance that it takes a while to become apparent, and to Kauzlaric, who makes Walter a masterful manipulator. The most problematic aspect of the play is Mitchell’s plot. Mitchell and his family were forced into hiding for years by loyalist paramilitaries offended by one of his later plays, so his depiction of Rathcoole as a totally lawless place deserves credence. But the second half of the play develops through characters proclaiming things about how vague, unseen people will act, and other characters accepting those declarations as fact and proceeding to the next logical step. There’s also an implausible injury, and at the end, they still haven’t resolved the problem they spent the latter half of the play debating. However, despite the speed at which we have to absorb information about the foreign little world of this play, it is a competently produced thriller. Irish Theatre of Chicago exists to share Irish plays, and this one, which achieved high acclaim in its home, is undoubtedly of great significance.
Reviewed March 3, 2016
For more information, see In a Little World of Our Own’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing in the upstairs Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $26-30, with discounts for seniors and students; to order, visit irishtheatreofchicago.org. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through April 10. Running time is eighty-five minutes with no intermission.