.Under Ben Bulben — A Jewel Theatre premiere

Room at the Top

While the rest of us were busy looking for the right yoga pants, or flirting with the guy across the bar, Kate Hawley was listening. Watching. Paying close attention.

Thanks to this playwright’s pitch-perfect ear, Jewel Theatre has launched another probing theater piece, the world premiere of Hawley’s Under Ben Bulben. Tongue firmly in cheek, the title nods both to a middle-of-nowhere spot of Ireland and a poem by Irish literary star William Butler Yeats.

Unfolding in a succession of vignettes, Ben Bulben places us in a run-down hotel managed by the unflappable Mrs. Brennen (a seamless, adroit performance by Patty Gallagher). With cheery scolding about the cost of hot water, and a stern warning against eating in the room, she welcomes a procession of guests. All have come with plenty of baggage.

We know these guests. We have been these guests.

With care and cunning Hawley and her scenario turn the hands of time back and forth, musing on memory and life’s inevitable lessons. Hawley is brilliant at surprises that are nonetheless familiar.

Thanks to knockout performances, the laughs are as rich and abundant as the tender epiphanies. Hawley writes funny as well as bracing, and never more so than for a breathtaking performance by Karel Wright as Maggie, accompanied to the hotel by her grandson Shaun (Andrew Yabroff).

As she remembers a childhood friendship that gave her the happiest times of her life, we watch an actor equal to the play’s best writing. It was one of those spellbinding moments that can only happen in live theater.

The tone is set as we meet the first guests, Sally (Julie Eccles) and Jack (Paul Whitworth), returning after many years to the site of their honeymoon. Hawley’s superb ear is at work as Jack makes a phone call to his daughter to let her know they’ve arrived safe and sound.

Talking with his little granddaughter, he launches into silly grandfather talk. Whitworth adroitly reveals the conversation on the other side through his own responses and reactions. The play often uses a phone call as a crucial device to expand the world

of the stage by way of unseen relationships, joys, disappointments and woeful disconnects. The phone calls to invisible others also invites the viewer into the play’s interior as we provide the unheard dialogue in our own imaginations.

Time, memory, what is said, and what isn’t, all form the deep tissue of Under Ben Bulben, a play whose appeal is immediate but whose scenes and implications will generate conversations long afterwards.

The Jewel pampers theater-goers with exceptional sets and lighting, and here kudos are due to lighting designer Kent Dorsey and scenic designer Michael Schweikardt.

Impeccable sound design by John H. Koss adds further texture, offering sonic reminders of the surrounding world.

The play keeps us engaged from start to finish as the characters bring their issues into the well-worn hotel room, inflected here and there with tart enthusiasm by Mrs. Brennan.

We meet another couple, on a return overnight for a golf tournament, and while the husband (Jeffrey Fiorito) drunkenly stumbles into bed and sleep, his wife (Nancy Carlin) recalls their previous stay. Both players are flawless in this gorgeously written bit of domestic revelation.

Cristina Anselmo as Josie and Solange Marcotte as her bored daughter Caitlin work their tense scene into a perfect lather of mother-daughter miscommunication.

Yet nothing is stereotypical in Hawley’s writing.

My heart was won, and not for the first time, by Rolf Saxon’s deft turn as a man on the phone to his ex-wife about their daughter’s wedding plans. His reactions to what we know she must be telling him are a masterclass in technique.

Finally, kudos to superb direction by Paul Mullins, whose insight into the script encouraged each actor to create a unique character.

Replete with memorable performances, Under Ben Bulben—the penultimate offering by the Jewel Theatre Company—is a splendid evening of theater.

Under Ben Bulben
Through April 14, $53


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