In a dusky honky-tonk in Reno, two women drink to celebrate the younger woman’s divorce. They’re friends it would seem, and this is going to mark a new beginning. Until the men enter the bar. Then it’s business as usual with boys being boys leading to girls being girls until someone begins to see the light. In Annie Ryan's thoughtful reimagining for the stage of Arthur Miller’s The Misfits, masculinity in all its faded and fallen glory is the cornerstone of the American dream. And it’s a cornerstone that’s cracking. With both men and their American dream being sentimentalised to dangerous extremes, the illusions of power, strength, kindness, and entitlement both are built upon is brought beautifully into question in a powerful, understated production which exposes the pained underbelly of Trump’s America.
Old habits die hard in “The Misfits,” as do old myths. Men who believe they’re true and good, trying to honour a way of living that’s brave and free, resent a country they believe has gone bad. And the women play their roles in supporting them. Men and women who posture, endlessly squaring up, and squaring off, circle each other like warriors getting ready to fight. Or to dance. Like Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are The Brave, these misfits believe they’re honourable outsiders, like wild mustangs, waiting to be ground up for dog meat by the corporate America that fences them in.
Making some brave and provocative choices, director Annie Ryan makes “The Misfits” her own and sets about exposing the fallacy behind these myths. Her most significant choice being the foregrounding of archetype over character. In a manner reminiscent of Ryan’s much loved Commedia dell’Arte, each of the five characters superbly represents a recognisible American stock type, or archetype, costumed to perfection by Saileóg O’Halloran. There’s Guido, rendered superbly by Patrick Ryan, a redneck, good ol’ boy war veteran who's uneasy around women. Sidekick to Aidan Kelly’s compelling, go get ’em cowboy, Gay, a strong and comparatively silent, older alpha male. These boys rule the roost, leaving the next generation of young men with no real fathers, nowhere to live, and nowhere to go. Like Emmet Byrne’s brilliantly portrayed Perce, his youthful manliness being endlessly tested and mangled in the older men’s rodeos and dive bars. Bars where sultry slices of American honey can always be found. Good looking, Daisy Duke styled dancers with bodies to please and hearts of gold. The type of good bad girl all the good and bad boys want, like Aoibhínn McGinnity’s beautfully crafted Roslyn. Meanwhile the frontier women, like Úna Kavanagh’s superb Isabelle, lounge in forgetfulness, their age rendering them undesirable, useful for nothing more than serving beer or mopping floors. Meanwhile the men become more desirable with age.
American archetypes permeate all aspects of “The Misfits,” including landscape. While Arthur Miller is still deeply resonant, Ryan’s “The Misfits,” with its slow pace and subtle, understated depths often hints of Sam Shepherd’s mid-western cowboys, dive bars, and desert heat. All beautifully evoked by Zia Bergin-Holly’s set and lighting design, in which landscape becomes both immediate and an abstraction. Awash in subtle, low key blues by Alma Kelliher that hint of Ry Cooder. A series of superb physical sequences by Justine Cooper, in which men buck and roll in a rodeo, or rope wild horses (or is that women), adds wonderful physical texture, and just a visual pinch of David Lynch.
In an America where a cowboy’s take-charge manliness is what women desire, where men who dance are always gonna look feminine, where beautiful women are pursued and rewarded, then the bond of sisterhood, where real change might be found, is always going to lose out to the sentimentalised American dream. In leaving this as a real possibility, with Roslyn lacking in conscious self-awareness of her own complicity in playing the male game, despite Isabelle’s challenging presence, Ryan can leave hope looking a little thin on the ground. The highway might lie ahead, but it looks like a road to nowhere, or a road that leads back again to where it all started. “The Misfits” may ask your indulgence a little, and not immediately reveal its subtler depths, and for some its neck deep Americana won’t instantly resonate. Yet in its quiet, intelligent, and understated way Ryan’s “The Misfits” says far more on masculinity, and on Ryan’s hopes and fears for her much loved America, than many who have screamed from the mountain top.
“The Misfits” by Arthur Miller, reimagined for the stage by Annie Ryan, presented by Corn Exchange, runs at Smock Alley Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2018 until October 7.
For more information, visit Smock Alley Theatre or Dublin Theatre Festival 2018