In Irish Classical’s ‘Seedbed,’ a dangerous idea grows in a claustrophobic setting
by Colin Dabkowski, The Buffalo News
If you were thinking about retirement, take a look at the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s production of “The Seedbed.”
You might reconsider.
Bryan Delaney’s strange and solemn four-hander, which opened March 11 in the Andrews Theatre in a production directed by Greg Natale, is in part a study in the psychological effects of too much spare time. It is also a poetic exploration of three family members’ inexorable journeys away from one another and toward the terrifying unknown.
The Dublin-born Delaney, whose play “The Cobbler” received its world premiere from the Irish Classical 2005, has carefully constructed his own alluring, imagistic style from the grand traditions of Irish drama. His avowed influences include Abbey Theater stalwarts J.M. Synge and Sean O’Casey, but his work also contains also dark echoes of the claustrophobic settings and twisted characters of Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson.
“The Seedbed,” with a funereal set by Paul Bostaph, gloomy lighting by Brian Cavanagh and a subtly unsettling sound design by Tom Makar, may as well be set in an actual bog. It opens with a strangely cheery exchange between Thomas (Chris Kelly) and his wife Hannah (Kirsten Tripp Kelley) that is so totally at odds with the play’s subterranean visual mood that we quickly realize it is a façade.
“We’re really good, aren’t we?” Hannah asks her husband with characteristic quiet desperation, as Thomas prattles on about his grand plans for a trip to Paris or Venice.
They are not good. As it turns out.
In fact, as a visit from their 18-year-old daughter Maggie (Arianne Davidow) and her newly acquired fiancé Mick (Eric Rawski) soon demonstrates, they are about as far from good as a semi-nuclear family can be. Maggie is Hannah’s biological daughter from a different father, but she and Thomas have raised her as their own.
These conditions have allowed for a certain idea to be born in Hannah’s head about the nature of Thomas’ affections for Maggie. (Strangely enough, the same setup drives the action of “A View From the Bridge,” now running in the Kavinoky Theatre.)
Whether that idea has any basis in reality will remain murky in this review, but suffice it to say that this dangerous notion undergoes a series of florid mutations in the mind of each character. The result is a wild psychological ride which demonstrates the power of the human imagination to shape reality and turn its darkest impulses into darker deeds.
As for imagination, Delaney has plenty to spare. He based the play on three abstract images: a house overgrown with plants, a castle caretaker carrying a birdcage and an overheard argument between a woman and her husband. The power of those seemingly disparate ideas suffuses the play, which flutters with avian imagery and poetry about the growth of gardens mirrored by the over-watered psychological fantasies in which its characters engage.
Delaney’s writing shines particularly well in Thomas’ dialogue. In one terrifying scene, Thomas acts out an insane pantomime involving a cup of sour milk and a cookie as everyone else — audience included — looks on with amusement, then dismay, then horror.
“My husband has a slightly lunatic side,” Hannah remarks as she tries to explain his behavior to Mick, an Englishman twice Maggie’s age. But Mick has his own shade of lunacy, and Hannah her own. The only one who seems to have it slightly together is Maggie, and she becomes the play’s hero — the one we root for to escape.
Rawski’s character is not exactly a cipher, but his presence feels too often mandated by the structural demands of the well-made play rather than organically emerging from the situation at hand. He acts as some sort of unhinged psychological version of Sherlock Holmes, picking his way, Cumberbatch-like, across the perilous mental landscape of characters who have been marinating far too long in their own miseries.
While the gloom and claustrophobia of the play can sometimes seem a bit too much to bear, the dynamic central performances of Kelly and Kelley — two of Buffalo’s very finest actors — make it all but impossible to lose attention. On their own, each of them delivers an astoundingly sensitive performance. Together, they create fireworks. Kelly, particularly, in his manic and tragicomic portrayal of a man brought to the edge of his sanity, is riveting.
Davidow also shines as Maggie, the picture of teenage optimism and naïveté sure to meet its match in the disappointment and pessimism of her older caretakers.
There’s plenty of pessimism and disappointment in “The Seedbed.” Like many great Irish dramas, Delaney’s play considers the push and pull of home, the pitfalls of staying too long in the nest and the difficulty of leaving at all. Its answer to this eternal question isn’t pretty, but it will certainly leave a mark.