Yesterday evening I drove north to Eagletown, Indiana to see the opening night of “Lafferty’s Wake” as presented by the all-volunteer Main Street Productions of Westfield, Inc. at the Westfield Playhouse.
The show was written in 1997 by Susan Turlish for the Society Hill Playhouse in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where it ran for six years (six years!) after opening to a little bit of controversy. For the Westfield Playhouse here in Indiana it was directed and produced by Doug Davis. His friend, Jan, told me at intermission that Doug performed the role of the priest/stand-up comic in Clinton County Civic Theatre’s production of the show in Frankfort, Indiana, a couple years ago. I wish I could have seen that production, too!
“Lafferty’s Wake” is an odd but fun piece, highly interactive and joyful even though it takes place at a funeral. The funeral takes place in a pub in Ireland. The pub set, designed by John Sampson and Doug Davis, is a “wow.” (More about that in a minute.) As an audience member, you are treated as a character in the show from the minute you walk from the lobby into the house. Before giving you a program, a Rory’s Pub waitress asks if you are “friend or family?” and points you to the guest book. After you sit down, someone else from the village comes up to say hello, too.
Each of the small, candle-lit tables is inviting. Where you choose to sit in the pub determines for the cast the precise character that you will eventually play with them. They will call on you by name. (I was Eileen.) Everyone is from Ballyslattery, County Donegal, Ireland. No seats are completely “safe,” so if you are shy but you want to sit right up front near the Irish flag-draped coffin, go for it. You may not be called on at all to be part of a game or to provide a bit of information in a story or to stand up and sing a wee song, but if you are, just relax and play along. If you can do it with an Irish accent, great, but if all you can do in the moment is blush and grin, as I did, I bet you will still have a good time. If nothing else, it’s easy – and a pleasure – to clap and sing along with the whole group when the song choruses come around.
And come around they do.
A Story and a Showcase
There is a double overall story arc to this show: the story of Charlie Lafferty’s life as told by his friends and family. We are all there in Rory’s Pub with Rory Finn himself (Shawn D. Evans) to celebrate Charlie’s life with his dramatically grieving widow, Kathleen Lafferty (Kate Hinman), their stoically grieving eldest daughter, Maggie Clancy (Brandi Payton), and their awkwardly grieving son-in-law, Patrick Clancy (Doug Stanton.) Father Terrence Pettigrew (Doug Davis this weekend due to an emergency, Thom Johnson the next two) is there to bless the event and lighten the mood as needed. (I especially loved Doug Davis’ impersonation of Lafferty’s dog!) Sometimes Lafferty-of-Old (Martin Hinman) appears in someone else’s memory of him and whimsically tells his own stories. A revelation or two from sexy Molly Greaney (Beth Ray-Scott), an old school chum of the widow and special friend of the deceased, increases the tension in the immediate plot. Another plot twist comes from an earnest bicycle Messenger (Brian Cook.)
However, the piece is also a showcase for Irish folk arts. There are jokes, stories, songs, even a bit of dancing…and references to everything from The Little People to James Joyce. Some of the jokes made me laugh; others made me groan. (I enjoyed both.) I also appreciated that no one rushed their storytelling, that everyone’s accent stayed consistent, that everyone rolled easily with the unexpected (which is always a given with live theatre but even more so with this kind of audience participation), and that every member of the cast interacted directly and comfortably with the audience as well as with each other. It was as if these actors had never even heard of a Fourth Wall, which was delightful.
Singing for Fun and Healing
But of all the sampling of traditional Irish performance folk art, I loved the sing-a-long aspect the most. It felt very authentic to me. Although I have never been to Ireland, I have been to pubs in Wales, Scotland, and England. People there sing not to show off their beautiful voices – or at least not only to show off – but to build community. A good singer is not necessarily one that can do amazing things with his or her voice, but one whose voice moves listeners and encourages them to sing, too.
In this production of “Lafferty’s Wake,” each table has a little card on it with the words to “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” However, for several other songs, Rory just teaches the chorus quickly before the song starts, and/or you just pick it up from listening first. Handsome Shawn D. Evans gives Rory a well-grounded, approachable leader-like quality that is very appealing.
One of the earliest songs in the show is started by the dreamy son-in-law Patrick (Doug Stanton.) He begs the others on stage to let him sing “Alive-alive-o” until they finally give in. (I missed why they resisted unless it was because he always wants to sing that one and they are tired of it.) He picks up his guitar, they join in, and then they move forward and gesture to invite the rest of us to join in as well. I was surprised to find myself weeping as I sang, “In Dublin’s fair city where girls are so pretty, I first set me eyes on Miss Molly Malone…” I think it was because I had learned this song as a child and I had had a couple of pieces of sad, unexpected news earlier in the day that I hadn’t had a chance to fully process yet. In any case, it felt comforting to sing this particular song. And, as with all good cathartic experiences, afterwards I was fine.
Well, no, I teared up again later while trying to sing along with the widow Kathleen (Kate Hinman) as she sang in front of the coffin, “But still I love him, still I’ll forgive him, still I’ll go with him wherever he goes…” She sang it beautifully.
Thinking Some More about the Music Choices
The voices are the strongest aspect of the music in this production. I swooned over the robust male voices of Shawn D. Evans, Doug Davis, and Doug Stanton, and I appreciated the power and emotion in Kate Hinman’s and Beth Ray-Scott’s voices. The only live musical accompaniment comes from a guitar, played simply but pleasantly by Doug Stanton (Patrick.) The rest comes from a jukebox. Some songs are sung without any accompaniment.
I happened to sit near Mac Bellner. She has directed a show or two for the Spotlight Players in Beech Grove, but I first met her years ago, before I became a theatre blogger, when a friend took me to hear a band called “Hog-Eye Navvy” in the Broad Ripple area of Indianapolis. Mac and her husband and a few of their friends make up this band, which is “an acoustic band blending Celtic and early American music with British and American sea chanteys.” I own and love two of their CDs.
Seeing Mac on a rare night off made me think how cool it would be to have “Hog-Eye Navvy” or some other, similar band pretend to be friends and family of the deceased in a production of “Lafferty’s Wake.” But maybe more musical instruments would make it harder for the main cast members to draw in the audience members and make us feel like characters in the story the way they do now. Hmm.
In any case, this is a satisfying production as is.
By the way, Mac is listed under “Special Thanks” in the program because she provided the director with some of the Irish sheet music.
The Set and Props – Big “Wow” and Several Detail “Wows”
As I mentioned earlier, when you enter the space for this show, you think “Wow!” especially if you have been to a show at this theatre before. I have been to two, and while I enjoyed both of them very much, their sets were much more bare-bones than this one.
For “Lafferty’s Wake,” the folding lawn chairs have all been cleared away and replaced with wooden chairs arranged cozily around little tables. You can’t buy a real beer, but it is fun to drink in the details that set decorators Doug Davis, Kat Watson, Betty Woods, and Cassandra Domer came up with to make the intimate space feel like a real pub.
There are garlands of Guinness flags overhead, for example, and real dart boards and hunting trophies (stuffed animal heads) on the side walls. There is a suit of armor just a few steps from your table in one direction, a pay phone on the wall just a few steps in the other direction. All of this and more help to create the feeling that the whole place is the set, not just what’s up on the stage.
Two little stairs flank masses of flowers, which surround the coffin, which is right in front of the stage. Much of the action takes place among the audience tables, and the light changes admirably to fit. (Lighting design by John Sampson.)
I won’t rob you of the pleasure of discovering the rest of the details yourself if you decide to go to this show, except that I have to also say that there is even a jar of pickled eggs on Rory’s counter, and he seems to draw pints from a real tap.
And okay, yes, this is community theatre, so the flowers surrounding the casket are all artificial so that they can keep the show within budget weekend after weekend. However, even the fake flowers are witty. You’ll see and hear what I mean if you go.
One, no Two, Quibbles
I loved how skillfully and seamlessly the curtain talk last night was inserted into the transition from pre-show to main show, but two little aspects of it distracted me or disappointed me or whatever:
- There is a big, appropriate “W.C.” sign over the door at the back of the stage, but in this theatre if you need to actually need to use a toilet, you have to go outside and use the port-a-potties at the side of the building. The curtain talk explains this along with the fire exits and so on. I think there was a missed opportunity to ground this show even more fully in its present location by saying something like “I know that the sign says the W.C. is back there, but the loo back there is broken, so please use the port-a-loos outside the pub.” Hmm. But maybe saying that that loo is broken would mess up our understanding of where Kathleen and Maggie are later in the show? But they could still be there even if the toilet itself was broken, couldn’t they? Hmm. (Thinking about stuff like this is one reason it takes me so long to write my reviews.)
- There is a “please join us in laughs & song” in the program but sometimes reticent Midwestern American audiences need a spoken “please sing along” in the curtain talk, too. Or at least, if they/we had one, I think they/we would understand what’s expected of them/us sooner and loosen up even more quickly than they/we did last night.
But these are just quibbles.
I wish I had time to go to this show another night and sit in a different seat, play another mourner. It is certainly affordable enough: Tickets are $10 for regular admission, $8 for seniors and students. You may make a reservation online and pay at the door. (I don’t know for sure, but they may only accept cash.) “Lafferty’s Wake” runs at the Westfield Playhouse through October 11, 2009.
May the road rise up to greet you…I’ll see you at the theatres!
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com
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