Although its mandate to rediscover long-neglected works has primarily covered the U.S. and Great Britain, the Mint Theater has also brought welcomed renewed attention to notable past Irish playwrights, such as Lennox Robinson (Is Life Worth Living?, reviewed here), Hazel Ellis (Women Without Men), and today’s case in point, Teresa Deevy (1894-1963). It is one of the anomalies of the theater world that a playwright with such an acute ear for characters’ speech struggled for virtually her entire adult life with the burden of deafness.
Remarkably, Deevy succeeded in getting six of her plays produced in the 1930s by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. But by the middle of that decade, with the company leaving the orbit of founders Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, she ran afoul of the literary politics of the time and could no longer get her work performed there. For most of the rest of her productive working life, then, she turned to the radio, producing a dozen original works for the B.B.C. and Radio Éireann, in addition to adapting some of her other works for broadcasting.
After being elected to the Irish Academy of Letters, Ireland’s highest literary honor, Deevy went pretty much from here to obscurity. Then, seven years ago, the Mint Theater made her an object of serious re-evaluation with its production of Wife to James Whelan, the play rejected by the Abbey in 1936.
The title The Suitcase Under the Bed refers to where all of Teresa Deevy’s writing was stored for decades. Deevy’s grandniece showed them to the Mint Theater’s Artistic Director, Jonathan Bank, who ended up staging the world premiere of three of them—Strange Birth, Holiday House, and In the Cellar of My Friend—along with her best-known one-act, The King of Spain’s Daughter, staged by the Abbey in 1935.
Not all the plays work effectively, but collectively they testify to Deevy’s willingness to try new forms—and to the Mint acting company’s versatility in playing different characters in the same evening.
The most impressive of the discoveries, Holiday House, is the kind of light-as-air comedy that Noel Coward might have tried if he had ever spent substantial time in Ireland. A family gathers at their mother’s seaside home for a late summer holiday. Derek, married for a few years now, finds his carefully cultivated savoir-faire sorely tested as he copes with unsettled business involving ex-fiance Doris (Ellen Adair); her haughty, jealous husband, Derek’s brother (Aidan Redmond); and Derek’s rattled wife Jil (Gina Costigan). Witty repartee flies back and forth, as the quartet try to remain civilized even as they veer inevitably toward verbal sniping.
Redmond had other opportunities to shine. In The King of Spain’s Daughter, he depicted an authoritarian patriarchal figure who gave his daughter Annie a choice: wed his younger coworker, Jim (A.J. Shively), or work in a factory. The play depicts a time when women—particularly high-spirited rebels like Annie (played with willful, headlong romanticism by Sarah Nicole Denver) —had few choices in life. And, in Strange Birth, he played a middle-aged postman proposing marriage to a skittish maid (the estimable Ellen Adair).
Holiday House and The King of Spain’s Daughter were more memorable than Strange Birth and the remaining one-act play, In the Cellar of My Friend. But the Mint troupe managed to spin multiple subtle variations on the theme of marriage, and the distinctive voice of Deevy was heard once again—and now, one hopes, it will continue to reverberate in rediscovery mode.
The Suitcase Under the Bed closed at the end of September. But I couldn’t let the opportunity go to review it before The Mint Theater starts another season.