By Lynn Venhaus
Known mostly in offbeat roles, versatile actors Colleen Backer and Jason Meyers are a dynamic duo in the irresistible romantic comedy “Outside Mullingar” at the West End Players Guild.
They shine as neighbors – 40-ish singles who are not mingling, and desperation about time passing by is creeping into their humdrum lives. Clearly, they are meant to be together, but their stars have been crossed by shyness, insecurities, grudges, stubbornness, misperceptions, their peculiar families, and past heartbreak.
Only children, they have lived their whole lives on adjacent family farms outside Mullingar, County Westmeath, in Ireland — with a pesky land dispute issue — and cared for elderly parents until they passed. Later, on their own, you’d think there would be an easier path to true love. But when you meet feisty Rosemary Muldoon and gentle, introverted Anthony Reilly, you will find out why it’s been a rocky road.
This confection is from acclaimed writer John Patrick Shanley, an Oscar winner for his original 1987 screenplay “Moonstruck” and a Tony winner for “Doubt: A Parable” in 2005, which also won a Pulitzer Prize. In 2014, he was nominated for another Tony Award for Best Play for this laugh-out-loud rom-com produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club that is also poignant and redolent with local color.
His lilting dialogue has a delightful rhythm to it, and the four-person cast is nimble in delivery, especially with the quirky cultural colloquialisms and customs. Shanley expresses his love for the land, and what makes Ireland so special, too, which is n interesting addition.
This is Shanley’s second play to be adapted into a movie, which came out as “Wild Mountain Thyme” in 2020 with Jamie Dornan, Emily Blunt and Christopher Walken, and cast Jon Hamm as the American cousin Adam, although in the play, you never see Adam, just hear about him. The film is available to stream on Hulu.
Jodi Stockton and Brad Slavik are well-suited to play Rosemary’s plucky widowed mother Aoife and Anthony’s gruff ailing father Tony with droll wit and pragmatic wisdom –while not exactly guiding their children in the most encouraging ways. Oh, those Irish squabbles that never seem to fade from memory.
In this distinctive Shanley scenario, the women seem to be stronger in lessons learned from life than the men do – and aren’t afraid to admonish them about it. Recognize your own family members? They may be a tad stereotypical, but they resonate.
The snappy repartee is one of the most fun aspects of this beguiling show – the parent and child scenes as well as the ones with a feisty Rosemary and a testy Anthony. She is often antagonistic, and he is frequently defensive, so sparks fly in a genuine way – and they convey the more complicated suppressed yearning and desires.
Backer and Meyer aren’t usually cast in “regular people’ roles, often unconventional – and good at it, as they are both current St Louis Theater Circle Award nominees for comedic work last year. But with abundant zeal, they are very sweet together as this couple finding their way. In fact, it would be swell if they were cast together again.
The almost sold-out audience on Feb. 17 was rooting for them – you could hear a few cheers, shouts, and whoops.
WEPG has produced other engaging Irish plays before – “The Lonesome West” last year and “Bloomsday” by Steven Dietz the year prior, and it’s a good fit, with their modest stage and intimate setting.
But perhaps none more adorable. Director Jessa Knust, with assistance from Karen Pierce, recognized the humor in the idiosyncratic characters, and ensures they are endearing, even when they are arguing.
And they stage the “Will they or won’t they?” framework with cleverness and sharp moves by swift Backer and Meyers, who are terrific at physical comedy.
Morgan Maul-Smith’s sound design is strong, and enhanced by Celtic music and pop hits by the Irish band The Corrs that entertains before, in bumps and after this spirited 90-minute show without an intermission. And the cast nailed the dialects perfectly the night I was there.
The artisan designers did fine work – Tracey Newcomb on costumes, Jacob Winslow on set, Karen Pierce on lighting, and Knust on props.
Timed to be a Valentine’s treat, “Outside Mullinger” is a marvelously performed hopeful tale about affairs of the heart that is not ordinary at all, and all the more delightful because of its daffy characters and Irish warmth.
As Irish novelist James Stephens once said: “What the heart knows today the head will understand tomorrow.”
West End Players Guild presents “Outside Mullingar” from Feb. 10 to Feb. 19, with performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Thursday Feb. 16 at 8 p.m., and Sundays Feb. 12 and Feb. 19 at 2 p.m. at Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Boulevard in the Central West End. Tickets for all performances of “Outside Mullingar” are on sale at www.WestEndPlayers.org/tickets or at the box office before the show.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.