Off-Broadway Review: “The Aran Islands” at Irish Repertory Theatre’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre

Off-Broadway Review: “The Aran Islands” at Irish Repertory Theatre’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre (Through Sunday July 23, 2017)
By John Millington Synge
Adapted and Directed by Joe O’Byrne
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

At the suggestion of W. B. Yeats, John Millington Synge visited the The Aran Islands (Inishmore, Inisheer, and Inishmaan) during a part of each year from 1898 until 1902. Yeats urged Synge to live there as if he was one of the people themselves and “express a life that has never found expression.” His journals from these visits – “The Aran Islands” – were published in 1907. Director Joe O’Byrne has adapted this body of work for the stage. Currently running at Irish Repertory Theatre’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre, this adaptation stars the master storyteller Brendan Conroy and provides one-hundred minutes of scintillating – often brilliantly bizarre – tales Synge shared during the time he enmeshed himself into the people and culture of these unique Irish islands off the coast of Galway.

Under Mr. O’Byrne’s thoughtful direction, Brendan Conroy emerges from the shadows of Margaret Nolan’s spare but serviceable set and “disembarks” on the Aran Islands and instantly embodies the spirit of John Millington Synge. With irrepressible energy and indomitable enthusiasm, Mr. Conroy takes the audience on Synge’s island adventures delivering each story, canvassing every rock and every resident with exacting care. Synge’s imagery tumbles off Conroy’s tongue as he describes his hosts, his blind guide, the storyteller he meets (Pat Dirane), and the countryside he reveres.

Pat’s stories and the anecdotes of the old man in Inishmaan take center stage here and Brendan Conroy delivers them with such precision and energy one might think he is speaking Gaelic. He can transport the audience into the matrix of the stories with authenticity and believability. Words glide into the audience with a gracefulness and passion that is engaging and easily connects to the real world of each audience member. One identifies with the characters in the story of the two farmers in County Clare. The old man from Inishmaan shares anecdotes of “things that happened in his lifetime” including the story of the Connaught man who killed his father and was protected from the police by the residents of the island. The logic for protecting the criminal: “If a man has killed his father, and is already sick and broken with remorse, they can see no reason why he should be dragged away and killed by the law.”

The solo show ends with the story of meeting Pat before leaving the island. “’I’ll not see you again,’ he said, with tears trickling on his face, ‘and you’re a kindly man. When you come back next year I won’t be in it. I won’t live beyond the winter.’ And so it would be, when I came back the following year he had indeed passed away. ‘But listen now to what I’m telling you; let you put insurance on me in the city of Dublin, and it’s five hundred pounds you’ll get on my burial.’”

Pat’s wit and wisdom thread through “The Aran Islands” and Mr. Conroy’s retelling of Synge’s account of his time on the Islands gives palpable truth to every word of wisdom and wit teeming from the “lonely rocks” Synge ultimately visited for the last time.