This publicity photo released by David Gersten & Associates shows Jon Fletcher, left, and Wrenn Schmidt, in a scene from “Katie Roche,” currently performing off-Broadway at the Mint Theater in New York. AP Photo/David Gersten & Associates, Richard Termine)
NEW YORK (AP) — A “wild” young woman in 1936 Ireland was one who didn’t conform to rigid societal expectations. Just being alone in a room with a young man would subject her to gossipy suspicions about her character.
The suspenseful, subtle revival of “Katie Roche” that opened Monday night at the Mint Theater is the third in their series resurrecting the work of noted Irish playwright Teresa Deevy.
Originally produced in 1936 by Ireland’s Abbey Theatre, the irony-filled play was a protest against the proprietary and even violent attitudes prevalent toward women in Ireland. Life was ruled by pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, and women were expected to conform, and be pious and obedient.
Deevy wrote complex characters, and the irony within this play often depends on actors projecting emotions without words. A look or an action can instantly change the course of a character’s life, before they quite realize what’s happened. As adeptly staged by the Mint’s artistic director, Jonathan Bank, his cast is quite accomplished at making the most of these nuances and pivotal moments.
Wrenn Schmidt (“Boardwalk Empire”) plays the title role with verve, giving servant girl Katie an enchanting, glowing air of youthful joy, uncertainty and hope. Willful, flirtatious and feisty, Katie is prone to mercurial mood changes that result in outbursts of impatient anger, fear or sudden realization, as she struggles to make decisions and find her purpose in life.
Hoping to do something “grand,” she consults with a traveling holy man (Jamie Jackson) while considering either joining a convent, accepting an unexpected marriage proposal from a much older man, or continuing to walk out with Michael Maguire, a boy her own age.
Jon Fletcher is quite appealing as Michael, whom Katie twists around her little finger with no real idea of what she wants from him. Her suitability for the convent is definitely questionable, too, as she’s prone to flippant remarks like, “Ah, you couldn’t go very much by the Bible; what’s said in one place is unsaid in another, and that’s the great puzzle.”
Katie’s employer, timid spinster Amelia Gregg, is played with spirited delicacy by Margaret Daly. “Won’t that be very nice!” she mutters upon hearing news both good and bad. She flutters about delightfully, offering tea and scones whenever things get tense. Which they usually do, fairly quickly. Much of the tension is created by Amelia’s brother Stanislaus (Patrick Fitzgerald), who turns up unexpectedly in their small cottage.
Fitzgerald initially projects a pleasant, if repressed and awkward air as Stan, particularly when he bumbles through his implausible marriage proposal to Katie. He blurts out, “I may seem a bit on the old side — I thought of that — but I’m strong. You’d probably age more quickly so there’d be less difference between us in a few years.”
As time goes by, Stan is increasingly stiff, uneasy and prone to anger. Fitzgerald wears a sour expression of barely-concealed displeasure, even closing his fists when surprised. Stan’s initial decency seems to wane, and his coldness grows, as his control over Katie appears in jeopardy.
Jackson portrays the holy man, Reuben, as near-saintly and a good listener, until he unexpectedly whacks Katie with his huge walking stick for her capricious ways. Even when the reason for his harsh volatility is provided, it certainly doesn’t justify his viciousness. David Friedlander offers solid support as Michael’s pal, Jo, and John O’Creagh makes a brief, enjoyable appearance as an unexpected, late-life suitor for an astonished Amelia.
Fiana Toibin rounds out the cast as the third Gregg sibling, pompous Margaret Drybone. Toibin overdoes the sanctimonious condescension, but her character’s much-voiced disapproval is a strong reminder of all the ways that a vivid young girl like Katie could get boxed in if she made a wrong choice in life.