There may be few places in the world as torn between the pull of the past and the promise of the future as Ireland — a country that's simultaneously a tech industry powerhouse and a place some 4.6 million Canadians consider "the old country."
That geographical location, and the grey area between an inescapable past and an uncertain future, are where John Patrick Shanley's Tony Award-nominated 2014 romantic drama/comedy Outside Mullingar unfolds.
The play — the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's entry in ShanleyFest, the festival dedicated to the Irish-American writer's work — follows two generations of the Reilly and Muldoon families.
Their farming families in modern-day rural Ireland (a setting beautifully realized in Charlotte Dean's elegantly detailed set) have been neighbours for generations, but a lingering dispute over a tiny parcel of land has incensed Reilly patriarch Tony (Nigel Bennett) and Muldoon matriarch Aoife (Terri Cherniack).
It threatens to poison the relationship between their children, Anthony Reilly (Mike Nadajewski) and Rosemary Muldoon (Alicia Johnston), who any fool can see belong together — if they can work around Irish stubbornness, the family feud and their own complicated feelings about their place in the world they live in.
And so Shanley sets up a good old-fashioned Old-World love story — but it's delivered in director Peter Pasyk's production with enough quirk, wit and Irish charm to still feel fresh.
Shanley is the focus of this year's Master Playwright Festival — the Royal MTC's annual deep dive into the work of one playwright — and while he's best known for his heavy drama Doubt, Outside Mullingar likewise suggests a masterful writer at work.
It's laced with colourful dialogue and sharp Irish wit ("the baby was born half-sized and shrank from there," Tony deadpans in his lilt) and offers plenty of laughs. It also provides a nice spin on the traditional rom-com, with scrappy and self-assured Rosemary pursuing the socially awkward and admittedly "off-kilter" Anthony.
It also has deeper points to make about past and future, as Tony debates whether to leave the family farm to his odd-duck son and Rosemary contemplates leaving the rural Irish life behind entirely.
Some of the play's threads do seem to get dropped, and its compact structure — covering a span of years in its intermissionless 95 minutes — means that there are some dizzying leaps in character development in spots. A late-in-the-play revelation about one character (which I won't give away) feels like a grasp at "quirkiness" that strains credulity a bit.
But at the same time, it drives forward with a breezy momentum, pulling us into the world of the Reillys and the Muldoons with well-drawn characters and compelling connections between them.
While both Bennett and Cherniack turn in strong performances (Bennett in particular, giving the often crusty Tony a final scene that's painfully and beautifully human), the play really belongs to the younger generation, and Johnston and Nadajewski carry it well.
Johnston gives Rosemary plenty of flint, but still enough vulnerability for us to relate to, and care for, her. Nadajewski makes Anthony just odd enough for us to understand the challenge he has fitting into the world around him, but still human enough that we root for him too. They have an easy and believable chemistry together.
It's in some ways as much a love letter to Ireland as a love story between two people living there ("I never wanted to write about the Irish," Shanley wrote in a 2014 New York Times essay, but "I always knew I'd have to come home eventually").
But for the audience, it's an entertainingly sweet journey to the intersection of past and present in the Emerald Isle — and the magic that can spark there.
Outside Mullingar runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Tom Hendry Warehouse until Feb. 17.