I knew there was a problem the moment I walked into the theater where the Mint is staging the American premiere of Micheál mac Liammóir’s controversial 1948 play, The Mountains Look Different. The company, which specializes in resurrecting long-forgotten works by little-known writers, is justly celebrated for its exquisitely rendered period sets, which often elicit gasps of joy from the audience. But the set for this production, continuing at Theatre Row through July 14, is standard and ordinary, a small farmhouse with painted backdrops of mountains and sky. (The set designer is Vicki R. Davis, who has previously wowed us with her sets for such previous Mint shows as Katie Roche, Women without Men, and The Price of Thomas Scott.) Unfortunately, the play can be described as plain and ordinary as well, a rarity for Jonathan Bank’s supremely talented and otherwise consistently dependable Mint.
It’s St. John’s Eve in the west of Ireland, and miller Matthew Conroy (Paul O’Brien) has arrived at the home of Martin Grealish (Con Horgan) to greet his niece, Bairbre (Brenda Meaney), and her new husband, Tom (Jesse Pennington), Martin’s son, who are coming back from London, where Bairbre toiled for thirteen years. While the happy and positive Matthew is excited by the marriage, the dour, bedraggled Martin is suspicious, and he grows even more leery when the couple shows up: He doesn’t trust that the modern, elegant Bairbre can possibly be in love with his odd and awkward son. And when he thinks he recognizes Bairbre, matters get even worse.
St. John’s Eve is a night of bonfires, but The Mountains Look Different, which was inspired by Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, never ignites. It is a one-note morality play, lacking depth and nuance, directed with overly straightforward precision by actor Aidan Redmond. The acting is fine; the cast also includes Daniel Marconi as farm handyman Bartley, Liam Forde as addled tin whistler Batty Wallace, and Cynthia Mace as an old woman named Máire, who declares, “Oh, isn’t it a glorious thing a lone woman to have a man around the place the way he could be putting in a word for her or be striking a blow for her, and she not able to make a stir for herself with the dint of the weakness does be on all female women, God help us!” However, the story surrounding the play is more intriguing than the play itself: There were religious protests over immorality when the show first opened at the Gate, and Gate cofounder mac Liammóir (The Importance of Being Oscar, Where Stars Walk) — who portrayed Tom — was, twelve years after his death in 1978, revealed to not be Irish at all but an Englishman named Alfred Willmore.