Irish plays and playwrights have an enduring appeal for B Street producing artistic director Buck Busfield. There’s a certain Irish sensibility Busfield appreciates and understands.
“Of all the white cultures out there, the Irish are the most soulful,” Busfield said after a weekend rehearsal of B Street’s upcoming Irish-set production, John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar.”
“Whether it’s real or theatrical, they have these obsessions with death and poverty. They know oppression, they know misery, and it’s spawned a profoundly rich comic irony. They laugh about this stuff rather than be defeated by it,” Busfield said.
Shanley is Irish by way of the Bronx, a New York-born Irish American playwright whose celebrated stage works include “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” (1983), “Italian American Reconciliation” (1988), and “Doubt: A Parable (2004),” which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama and Tony Award for best play. Shanley’s film writing includes “Five Corners” (1987), the Academy Award-winning “Moonstruck” (1987) and the film adaptation of “Doubt,” which he directed with Meryl Streep and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
“Outside Mullingar” premiered on Broadway on Jan. 23 with a cast featuring Brían F. O’Byrne and television actress Debra Messing, making her Broadway debut. Shanley said of the play that he “wanted to write a play set on the family farm,” referring to his Irish heritage.
Set in the Midlands of Ireland, the story involves two farmers, Anthony and Rosemary, who live next to each other. Rosemary has long had an attraction to the quiet Anthony, who really has no interest in farming.
“It’s so charming,” Busfield said. “It’s reminiscent of his early stuff like ‘Italian American Reconciliation,’ where he devotes a lot of time to developing characters, and they’re only setting the table for the other two characters to go on and finish the play. It’s unorthodox, but we’re charmed by that. And of course the characters and the premise are really sweet and funny.”
“Outside Mullingar” was nominated for a best play Tony Award.
David Pierini, who plays Anthony in the B Street production, brought “Mullingar” to Busfield this spring after seeing Shanley introduce it on the Tony Awards broadcast.
“What struck me about this when I read it was how there’s not a wasted line,” Pierini said.
“I’m reading it and laughing because there are so many great lines,” he said. “Shanley can write these beautiful words that an actor can actually play, which is not easy to do.
“It’s hard to write poetry that will play, but I kept thinking, ‘That’s a weird thing to bring up,’ then 30 pages later, here’s the payoff. There’s not one wasted idea,” Pierini said.
Just how a play will work in the intimate space of the B Street Theater is a major concern of Busfield’s along with having the right actors to carry off the scripts. He’s carefully built his acting company with actors who understand his needs and can work within often tight rehearsal schedules.
Pierini has a long, varied tenure with the theater as an actor, writer and director, while Dana Brooke, who plays Rosemary, is a founding member of the acting company and has appeared in 20 productions at B Street. The other members of the four-person cast are newcomer Mairtin O’Carrigan, who plays Tony, and Jayne Taini, who has been in a Busfield holiday show and plays Aoife.
“What we look for is a high degree of specificity of thought in the dramatic action,” Busfield said. He cited several members of the acting company who have that skill – Elisabeth Nunziato, Kurt Johnson and Jason Kuykendall.
“I can say I need you to play this specific action on this specific line and change it on this line,” Busfield said. “Well, to work in most regional theaters, you don’t have to do that. Most regional theater actors can handle text, stand still and deliver a performance. Those actors don’t do well at B Street Theatre.”
Busfield added that his actors can work anywhere because of how well they communicate the text.
“The actor who’s a good small-house actor can translate to a big house (theater) because you read what they’re doing,” Busfield said. “The specificity of thought and action reads more clearly to the back of the house than volume does.”
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.
WHAT: A lonely Irish farmer struggles with land, love and legacy in this charming Irish romance.
WHEN: Previews Saturday at 5 p.m. and 2 p.m. Sunday. Opens 7 p.m. Sunday. Continues through Nov. 23.
SHOW TIMES: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 2 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays;
5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
WHERE: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2711 B St., Sacramento
TICKETS: $15-$35; $5 student rush
INFORMATION: (916) 443-5300, bstreettheatre.org