In rural Ireland not so long ago, marriages were arranged by matchmakers, and love was a luxury that many could not afford.
“Sive” — a classic Irish drama written by John B. Keane in 1959, but rarely produced in the United States — challenges the tradition of unhappy unions among working-class men and women struggling to survive the economic hardships of the bog.
At the center of the play is Sive, a 17-year-old orphan girl (played by Yvette Bourgeois), living with her aunt and uncle on their meager farm. When a local matchmaker (James Bartelle) wants to arrange a marriage between Sive and an elderly farmer down the road, Sive’s calculating aunt Mena (Kristin Witterschein) jumps at the chance to be rid of the girl and perhaps make some money in the process. The matchmaker is skeptical that Sive will agree to the arrangement, but Mena is committed to their ploy.
“Oh, she’ll dance to my tune, easy,” Mena tells the matchmaker.
It’s tempting to paint Mena as the heartless villain of “Sive,” but Witterschein believes she’s simply a product of her environment.
“She’s a very sensible woman. She believes very much in tradition, and in people’s roles in the house, and how men and women are supposed to be, and she doesn’t really understand Sive’s modern thinking,” said Witterschein.
“She’s not being cruel for the sake of being cruel. She sees a chance to get out from underneath this awful, oppressive work-from-dawn-to-dusk life, and she’ll do anything to get it.”
For director Alex Ates, the success of the play depends on this sympathetic approach to the characters.
Rather than just playing the characters as one-dimensional cultural stereotypes, with thick Irish brogues and fast-talking shenanigans, Ates wants the humanity of the characters to shine through.
“We want the actors to be nuanced. We want them to work in details,” said Ates. “The stakes for each character are not only intense, but building every single moment. We realize that because the stakes are so intense, it could come across as over the top, but when you really dig into the moments and you create nuance, it becomes just a masterpiece that I hope will really engage the audience.”
Ates first encountered “Sive” on a trip to Ireland in 2014, where he saw a touring production staged by the Abbey Theatre, the national theater of Ireland. While the play is well-known among Irish audiences and regularly performed by professional theaters, community theaters, and even high school students in Ireland, it’s unfamiliar in this country.
“This play is so under-known, it’s crazy,” said Ates. “The last production that we could find in the U.S. was in the early 2000s at the Irish Rep Theater in New York. Other than that production, we have not come across many — if any — other productions in the States.”
Nevertheless, Ates insists that “Sive” has plenty of lessons for contemporary Americans.
“It’s a play about a working-class family that is manipulated by greed, anger, and fear, something that seems oddly resonant these days,” said Ates. “The play’s themes are very much about how greed disguised as tradition can really have a damaging effect on the younger generation and can really stunt progress — and that’s all I’ll say without ruining the ending.”