Since I attended the world premiere of Edna O'Brien's new play, Tir na nÓg, at the Magic Theatre last week, Chris Smith has been on my mind. Smith, who is leaving the venerable 41-year-old S.F. company this season after just five years as artistic director, has worked with indefatigable energy, generosity of spirit, and good humor to prop up the Magic's slightly saggy reputation as a national landmark for new plays. It's been tough going, to say the least.
On one hand, Smith has been instrumental in nurturing the careers of such up-and-coming playwrights as Betty Shamieh and Mat Smart, created a welcoming home for new work by established names like Rebecca Gilman and Josh Kornbluth, and pushed through the installation of the Magic Cafe — a great space to hear live music, check out production-inspired fine art, and discuss plays over a pre- or post-show drink. On the other hand, high-profile world premieres such as David Mamet's Faust (which the author directed himself in 2003) and last fall's staging of Bill Pullman's Expedition 6 were artistic misfires, despite breaking box-office records. Commendable efforts to lure younger audiences to balance the theater's maturing core clientele, such as offering discounts to under-30s, have so far done little to lower the audience's median age. Meanwhile, recent season programs featuring a baffling assortment of mostly pedestrian new plays and turns by decaying celebrities like Joan Rivers and Marlo Thomas have undermined the company's mission as a producer of "hot cool new plays."
With the above in mind, it seems to me that Smith's warm-hearted if off-kilter staging of O'Brien's musty-elegiac Tir na nÓg makes for a bittersweet swansong. The production captures something of the director's boundless enthusiasm and youthful attitude while reflecting the tensions inherent in balancing the present with the past.
When The Country Girls, the novel upon which Tir na nÓg is based, first appeared in 1960, O'Brien's work was banned in the author's native Ireland for its candid portrayal of the sexual awakenings of two teenage Irish girls. By today's standards, O'Brien's narrative about the journey of the studious, romantic Caithleen "Kate" Brady and her feisty childhood friend, Barbara "Baba" Brennan, from their small rural hometown in the west of Ireland to a strict Catholic high school and finally to independent life in Dublin seems innocent. But her new stage adaptation of the book feels positively naive in comparison.
Tir na nÓg means "land of youth" in Gaelic, and a gentle springlike spirit accordingly permeates the show. From the breathless, episodic structure of the plot to the play's several flights of whimsy, including a midnight dormitory dance number performed to crooner Bobby Darin's "Under the Sea," Tir na nÓg skips along like a childhood game of hopscotch. Rather than focusing, as the novel does, on the hate side of the love-hate relationship between the two central characters, the play creates an affectionate portrait of these very different teenage girls. The production derives much of its energy and humor from the contrast between Allison Jean White's understated Kate and Summer Serafin's bubbly Baba. In one of the liveliest scenes, Baba convinces Kate to rub ointment on her breasts that her veterinarian father normally slathers on cows' udders. Kate guilelessly goes along with her friend's suggestion, and her resulting squeals of discomfort provide a good old-fashioned hoot.
The production's jaunty energy is further sustained by the show's music. Accompanied by Mary Pitchford on fiddle (joined on occasion by other members of the cast on pennywhistle and mandolin), the performers sing robust versions of many well-known Irish ditties such as "Whiskey in the Jar" and "Dirty Old Town." The pervasive presence of Deborah Black as the bardlike "Singing Woman" (a mythical character created specifically for the stage adaptation) further steeps the show in Irish lore.
Yet as a result of its heartwarming optimism and sense of longing for some misty Ireland of yore, O'Brien's nostalgic homage to the pretty innocence of youth comes at times dangerously close to resembling a Disney musical. Audiences resistant to the idea of peering through an emerald lens at Blarneyland may find themselves craving a touch of the peaty bleakness of O'Brien's previous two Magic-produced dramas, Triptych and Family Butchers, to temper Riverdance alum Jean Carpenter's toe-tapping final dance number and the low-life characters' ebullient, whiskey-tinged camaraderie.
O'Brien said in a recent Chronicle interview that she avoided referring to her novel while writing the theatrical adaptation. "I wanted to invent a world of theater," she explained. "I didn't look at the book. I didn't even have a copy of The Country Girls in my house." The lack of slavish fidelity to the source material ought to be one of the production's greatest strengths. But I found myself wishing that O'Brien had at least retained the dark heart of her original text. The lingering whiff of seediness and exploitation that caused a number of Catholic priests to organize public burnings of her bildungsroman in Irish churchyards back in the 1960s is sadly absent from the theatrical version.
Just as Tir na nÓg seems like a watered-down version of O'Brien's debut novel, it's tempting to look back at the Magic's youth with rose-tinted nostalgia. The former stomping ground of the likes of Sam Shepard (who was resident playwright from 1975 to 1983) and Michael McClure was once considered to be one of the edgiest new playwriting organizations in the U.S. But the theater company's programming in recent seasons has been nothing if not tepid. Even last year's theatrical exploration of sadomasochistic sex, Chantal Bilodeau's Pleasure + Pain, was about as racy as an episode of Sesame Street. Tir na nÓg, meanwhile, occupies ironic territory. It draws attention to the Magic's hip legacy by virtue of being decidedly unhip.
Ireland, like the past, is another country. As the saying goes, they do things differently there. Feelings of nostalgia for former glories won't aid the Magic in getting back its mojo. And yet I can't help but mourn the impending loss of Smith. His successor, whose identity the company will shortly reveal, may be able to steer the ship more steadily than Smith did during his short reign over at Fort Mason's Building D. But no matter how visionary that director may be, I doubt he or she will match Smith's youthful energy.