Breaking Old Ground
The exclusion of playwright Teresa Deevy (1894-1963) from the Abbey Theatre's, 1916 centennial celebration programme last year had all the hallmarks of history repeating itself. Having enjoyed significant success between 1930 and 1936, when several of her plays were produced by the Abbey, Deevy was to find herself exiled to the theatrical wilderness for the remainder of her days. Indeed, Deevy's exclusion, along with the exclusion of several other female playwrights, from last year’s celebration of a century of Irish theatre led directly to designer Lian Bell’s hugely important #wakingthefeminists movement. A movement that has brought about a necessary reappraisal of gender equality within Irish theatre. And a long overdue reclamation of Deevy’s work on home soil. Shortly the Abbey Theatre will stage a new production of her most famous full-length play, Katie Roach. Performance artist Amanda Coogan, along with Dublin Theatre of the Deaf, is currently appropriating Deevy’s most popular shorter work, The King of Spain's Daughter, for “Talk Real Fine, Just Like a Lady” which will play on The Abbey’s Peacock stage as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival in the coming weeks.
Yet when it comes to reclaiming Deevy and her work, New York based Mint Theater Company have been well ahead of the game for some time. Following on from their earlier productions of Deevy’s Wife to James Whelan (2010), Temporal Powers (2011), and Katie Roche (2013), Mint Theater Company are currently staging four of Deevy’s shorter works, three of which are receiving their world premieres. Titled “The Suitcase Under The Bed,” this production is the brainchild of Mint Theater Company’s Artistic Director, Jonathan Bank who, along with Deevy’s grand-niece Jacqui Deevy, discovered two suitcases of Deevy’s work tucked under the bed in the family home, many of which had never been performed.
Throughout all four short pieces in “The Suitcase Under The Bed” the course of true love never runs smooth. In Strange Birth, Sara, a cleaner of a rooming house full of the desperate and broken hearted, is determined never to succumb to love. Yet Postman Bill has other ideas, along with a letter with which he hopes to win fair maiden. Short and succinct, Strange Birth is a tautly structured work that engages from the outset.
Winning the heart of a fair male dominates in In The Cellar Of My Friend, in which a letter again is used as a dramatic device. Here, the delighted Belle believes herself engaged to Barney, son of barrister Thomas, a man who believes himself in with a chance of winning Belle’s affections. But Barney has ideas other than engagement, which a missing letter can help clarify. If the whole hinges on a flimsy premise that stretches credibility and asks a lot of the audience, there are also moments of genuine power, with many of Deevy’s themes – the conflict between passion and duty, the opportunities and choices available to women – given strong expression. It’s also a work that shows Deevy looking to stretch herself dramatically.
If letters dominate the previous two scripts, sandwiches link the final two. Holiday House, the least satisfying of the four, sees two lovers reunited, along with their respective new partners, for a family holiday by the seaside. Feeling like the first act of a larger work, and presented in a style that can only be described as Private Lives light, Holiday House stops rather than ends, with characters feeling barely introduced before disappearing and leaving everything, uncharacteristically, unresolved.
Concluding with The King of Spain’s Daughter, it’s a case of keeping the best wine till last. Deevy’s flawless short masterpiece, telling the tale of a young women with desires and an imagination larger than the limiting life being imposed on her, is an exercise in economy, with a power and precision that borders on the poetic.
While Bank is to be applauded for taking on such a monumental task, and there is certainly much to enjoy here, there are obviously going to be drawbacks in trying to direct a range of works that represent the range of a writer’s life. Deevy was always challenging herself, refusing to quit even when she went deaf, and that spirit redefines and reshapes her work which, over the years, clearly began to evolve. Something which Bank very much makes evident. Yet the limits imposed by staging options, and of cast playing several roles, leads to some occasional bumpy moments. Pace can drag in places, compositional options are restricted in others, though the latter is something Bank successfully negotiates for the most part.
When it comes to cast, all are credible and acquit themselves well. Yet some acquit themselves incredibly well. Aidan Redmond shines in The King of Spain's Daughter, revealing the power, and powerlessness, of a patriarchal father fearful for his daughter and the choices she makes. A daughter exquisitely realised by Sarah Nicole Deaver, making her Off Broadway debut. Whilst consistently strong throughout, Deaver is a revelation in The King of Spain's Daughter, stretching and straining at the limits imposed on her, hinting that we’re only really seeing the tip of the iceberg. Together, Redmond and Deaver seethe with palpable tension in this beautifully realised piece, exquisitely directed, which crackles and bristles with an unrelenting energy, revealing Deevy, the dramatist, at her bold and brilliant best.
For reclaiming neglected writers like Deevy and producing their works, as well as publishing their often lost manuscripts, Bank and Mint Theater Company deserve standing ovations for the hugely important work they do. Yet the question will often be asked: are such works worth reclaiming? With “The Suitcase Under The Bed” Bank answers with a resounding 'yes.' For “The Suitcase Under The Bed” makes evidently clear that had Deevy's career not been cut short, she might well have become one of Ireland's most celebrated playwrights.
“The Suitcase Under The Bed” by Teresa Deevy, directed by Jonathan Bank, and produced by Mint Theater Company, runs at The Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, until September 30th
For more information on times and tickets, visit Theatre Row
For further information on Teresa Deevy and The Teresa Deevy Project, visit Mint Theater Company