You've probably never heard of Lennox Robinson's Drama at Inish, currently being staged by Act Inc. which is precisely why they're doing it. This troupe of theatrical excavators loves to unearth lost plays and dust off forgotten playwrights. With Drama at Inish, the company gets to do both. Although Robinson's plays rarely registered with American audiences, he was well known in his native Ireland. This summation of a life in the theater, written in 1933 at the apex of his prolific career, provides a resonant and affectionate evening.
The story plays out in an Irish village so dull, "there wasn't even a decent dog fight." The local hotel has an adjoining theater. Last summer's slate of comedies bombed, so this summer the hotel proprietor (Steve Callahan, crisply authoritative) has booked a repertory company to stage "high-class" works by the likes of Chekhov and Ibsen. Not only do the villagers enthusiastically respond to this highbrow entertainment (note that Robinson subtitled his script "an exaggeration"), but life soon begins to imitate art. A "queer madness" takes hold of the once-lethargic town. People begin "acting" in unexpected ways. The same kinds of scandals and attempted suicides that permeate the onstage dramas begin to occur in the village. Although the script never takes itself too seriously, it makes gentle observations about the suggestive, sometimes subversive, power of art.
Rob Grumich has directed this in-the-round production with such an awareness of the total stage picture, one wouldn't be surprised to learn that he has eyes in the back of his head. Staging in the round is no hindrance here; to the contrary, as directed by Grumich, each character simply becomes that much more fully rounded. Anthony Mullin brings a wry blend of narcissism and humility to Hector de la Mare, imperious head of the acting troupe. As Hector auditions an eager young would-be thespian, watch how a lifetime of regrets registers in his glazed eyes. Eleanor Mullin enacts Hector's wife and acting partner (the wonderfully named Constance Constantia) more in the discreet mode of Duse than the flashy Bernhardt, and her restraint makes Constance all the more appealing.
Among the townies, Liz Hopefl delivers yet another marvelously realized portrayal. In last summer's Separate Tables, she was the spinster hotelkeeper at a seaside inn. Again this summer she's a spinster who manages a seaside hotel, but what a difference. The poignant reality of Separate Tables is replaced by foolish buffoonery. What remains constant is Hopefl's relentless commitment to the honesty of all the characters she plays. As her simple-minded nephew Eddie, haplessly in love with one of the frequent hotel guests (Sarah Cannon, unpretentious and direct in the loveliest kind of way) who refuses to take him seriously, Charlie Barron brings an almost existential solitude to a role that in lesser hands could come off as a one-dimensional dolt. In fact, Eddie is a dolt but he's a dolt with feelings. Barron flushes him out in the most heartbreakingly happy manner.
Kudos too to the thoughtful costumes by Michele Siler. It's no accident, for instance, that although Eddie begins the play wearing carefree, light colors, by night's end he's cloaked in black suits worthy of the moody Konstantin in The Seagull.
As satisfying as the production is, the only completely missed moment in this homage to the acting life occurs in the staging of the final scene. Within the parameters of the play's comedy, Robinson succeeded in writing a piercingly sad ending, worthy of Ibsen. That sadness is missed here, and an otherwise richly mined evening ends on the script's surface rather than in its soul. But if that added depth is an opportunity missed, the production itself provides an even larger opportunity, not to be missed by those who love plays about plays. Chances are that in your entire lifetime you're only going to get one shot at seeing Drama at Inish. This is it.