Beneath quaint Irish village life in Teresa Deevy's Wife to James Whelan, excavated from obscurity by the Mint Theater (through October 3), there's a struggle between modern values and traditional attitudes. The three acts' movement from a sunny hillside to a sparse office and a bustling business underlines the slow erosion of local principles. James Whelan (Shawn Fagan) dodges these colliding customs better than anyone. Fagan, bouncing around the stage with anger, annoyance and ambition, gets the title character's mean miserliness but misses the charisma that makes even his enemies root for him. He, the budding bus company owner bringing modern transportation to a secluded glen north of Dublin, can afford to ignore those unstable social codes. Not so for Nan (Janie Brookshire, understated yet remarkable), who refuses to wait for James when he leaves in the first act. Seven years later, a widow with a young child and not enough money for food, even the local priest deems her "ruined." As her tragedy deepens, those traditional attitudes prove to be completely current despite the delayed arrival of modernity. Like Deevy, Nan wields an independent agency that was before her time.
When, in 1942, Deevy submitted James Whelan to the Dublin theater that produced her previous work, it was rejected. It's hard so say why in light of this production, save perhaps the first act's at times pedantic expository legwork, full of clumsy comings and goings. Its pessimistic emotional realism and unromantic view of country life may have offended the era's traditionalists. Director Jonathan Bank and a superb ensemble (Rosie Benton as James' lifelong bestie and Aidan Redmond as Tom, the play's moral pillar, merit special mention) manage a progressively more enveloping performance after the scattered start. Though tradition wins out in the end, it won't make James Whelan's journey any less moving for a modern audience.