Just the facts, ma'am. The fact is that when the lights dimmed at the conclusion of the opening-night performance of Gary Mitchell's In a Little World of Our Own, an explosive Irish drama currently receiving its American premiere in the capable hands of HotHouse Theatre Company, the audience sat exhausted and stunned. Not so much as a peep was heard until the lights were restored for the curtain call. Then, as one, the audience erupted in a frenzy of applause. Cast members took their bows and left the stage. Still the applause continued, compelling the cast to reappear -- at which time the audience, in an act of much-needed catharsis, leaped to its feet in a tumultuous standing ovation. (As opposed to the obligatory shuffle we see at too many other plays.) The entire evening provided the kind of rare, spontaneous miracle that theatergoers dream about and pray for, but if they actually experience the real thing once or twice in a lifetime, they're lucky.
The object of all this enthusiasm is a lean, sinewy, rhythmically charged drama that for some inexplicable reason was not optioned by New York producers after its Dublin premiere in 1997. HotHouse got hold of it and is making the most of this rare opportunity.
Set in the battleground of Belfast, Northern Ireland, the taut story involves three unlikely brothers. Ray is a two-legged pit bull, a thuggish member of a Protestant paramilitary group who has learned from hard experience that "the world is a violent place." With the aid of some well-worn brass knuckles, Ray knows how to navigate that world. In benign contrast, the decent Gordon is his brother's antithesis. Thanks to an impending marriage to the sweet, religious Deborah, Gordon can envision a future that is not mired in the tangled past.
When the play begins, the key confrontation appears to be a dispute between Ray and Gordon over custody of baby brother Richard, a teenage simpleton who, though incapable of caring for himself, "always does what he's told." But custody soon takes a back seat to survival. When Richard attends a party, and the teenage daughter of the leader of a rival Protestant paramilitary splinter group is later found raped and battered, events escalate out of control. In trying to sort out what really happened -- was she attacked by a Catholic boy? Was Richard involved? -- the play becomes a maze of contradictions, a Rashômon-like inquiry in which this one dysfunctional family stands in for all the lies, false starts, dead ends and profound confusions that have hampered peace efforts since "the troubles" began too many decades ago in Northern Ireland.
Which is not to suggest that this is a political play, or even one defined by its locale. In a Little World of Our Own is set in Belfast because its author was raised there; he writes about the milieu he knows. Yet with precious few line changes, that locale could be moved to Verona, and the characters could be renamed Capulet and Montague; it could be shifted to West Virginia, with the names altered to Hatfield and McCoy; it could take place in St. Louis (fill in the names yourself). Wherever rival factions hate each other beyond direct memory, that's where this play is set.
For the most part, the production is as riveting as the script. The set design by Bryan Schulte and Mark Wilson bathes the family home in deep hues of red, as if the living room is actually some sort of antechamber on the road to Hell. As directed by Brad Schwartz, the production moves with ferocious speed (86 minutes plus intermission), though not so quickly that a viewer can't follow what's happening.
As the brutish Ray, Joel Lewis gives an astonishing performance. The sheer wonder of his accomplishment stems from the fact that Lewis is so un-brutish. There's actually a softness, a sweetness, about him -- until he snaps like a cobra, which he's prone to do at the least likely times. Although the play is tightly written, its final scene is so highly charged it runs the risk of devouring the actors. But Lewis confronts the challenge head-on. As the audience literally holds its collective breath, Lewis transforms a potentially lugubrious star-turn into a balletic dance of death. Astonishing.
The same can be said of Peter Mayer, whose deftly etched portrait of Walter, another member of Ray's paramilitary group, is downright remarkable. Walter serves as the conduit between the refuge of the living room and the threatening world outside. Much of his role is exposition; Walter is ever bringing the audience up to speed, ensuring that this runaway train of a story is not outracing the viewer. Mayer fulfills these tasks without once revealing the transparency of his function. To the contrary, he transforms Walter into an enigma. Every time he appears, the stage assumes an eerie menace. Is Walter a friend, a foe or an Irish Judas Iscariot? Like so many questions the play asks, this one remains unanswered.
The third outstanding performance is delivered by Scott T. Miller, an SIU Edwardsville student making his first appearance west of the Mississippi. Miller persuades the viewer that young Richard's half-wittedness truly is "a gift from God." He and big brother Ray share moments so poignant, a viewer feels almost embarrassed to be watching. But then, Lewis draws out the best in everyone. Penney Kols is effective as the naive fiancée, but she's most vital in her confrontations with Ray.
Apart from one wooden portrayal, the production's only irritation concerns a gunshot that occurs late in the play. A sign in the lobby alerted viewers to the shot, as did a reference in the playbill. Then before the play began, a HotHouse staffer informed the audience that anyone upset by the shot could receive a refund. Enough already.
But here's a thought. Why not take the theater up on its offer? After the show, get your money back. Then proceed straight to the box office and purchase another ticket. In a Little World of Our Own is a watershed event in St. Louis theater. Surely a play this rich, a production this textured, warrants a second viewing.