For the first few minutes of The Playboy of the Western World, it’s not easy to follow exactly what’s going on. There are the Irish accents to get accustomed to and the unfamiliar terminology that requires a glossary in the program. Yet even when plot details may be slipping by, there’s something about those musical, lilting tones that yanks you into the play’s universe. Whatever story is being told, you get a pretty good sense that you’re going to want to be part of it.
It’s fitting then that John Millington Synge’s 1907 play—currently on stage at Pioneer Theatre Company—anchors itself in the irresistible appeal of a well-told tale. Though nominally a romantic comedy, Playboy captures the Irish love of a well-crafted anecdote, especially when that anecdote poses as fact.
Young Pegeen (Patricia Dalen) certainly has reason to find another world appealing. Helping to run the County Mayo public house owned by her father Michael (Max Robinson), Pegeen faces an undesired marriage match with her cowardly second-cousin Sean (Corey Behnke). A sorry life awaits, until a handsome, road-weary stranger wanders into the pub. He calls himself Christy Mahon (Tommy Schrider) and claims he has been on the run for 11 days from the hanging offense of killing his own cruel father. The pub’s denizens instantly find Christy fascinating—particularly Pegeen, who turns her fancy to him even as the rest of the town gravitates toward his man-of-action mystique.
At first, the narrative’s conceit may seem like the stuff of particularly dark comedy. Girls swoon at Christy’s feet as he recounts clouting his da over the noggin with a shovel, and the men turn him into a kind of folk hero to be alternately respected and feared. There’s a charming message—if you want to become the resident stud, just try a little patricide.
But eventually it becomes evident that the deeds Christy claims are not the real source of his appeal. In The Playboy of the Western World, there is no more admired talent than being able to tell the best story, whether it’s a tale about the bounty of drink at a wake or a whopper about a man who went on a horse-murdering rampage. Christy wanders into town with a story that no one can top, and Tommy Schrider plays Christy with the giddy realization that he can reinvent himself from the nobody he was in his own hometown. Synge plays with the multiple meanings of “playboy” introduced in the glossary—Christy may be something of a dare-devil, but he’s more an actor playing a role than anything else.
Director John Going latches on to this environment of spinning a yarn over a mug of ale, even as the narrative threads scatter a bit. Sean conspires with a nosy widow (Giulia Pagano) to remove Christy as a challenger for Pegeen’s affections, but the romantic triangle element proves to be a bit of a dead end. There’s more appeal in the character comedy than in farcical elements like cross-dressing disguises and hidden identities, particularly when Christy is finding his inner poet to woo Pegeen. Despite the burden of having to play with thick accents, the performers make the people and their follies worthy of the time spent with their storytelling.
In one of the production’s most technically beautiful moments, the second act opens with a dawn that creeps slowly across the stage in Peter Willardson’s gorgeous lighting design. It’s an image that sets a scene of pure lyrical fancy, which makes it a jarring surprise when the play wraps up with a less than happy ending. Yet that ending also highlights the difficult clash between a romanticized legend and the truth that sometimes rests behind it. The Playboy of the Western World makes lovely fiction out of lovely fictions, and the people who’d rather dwell with them than with harsh reality.