In “Sive,” a 1959 Irish drama written by John B. Keane, an indecent proposal leads to a moral dilemma.
The trouble starts when Sive, a 17-year old orphan living with her Uncle Mike and Aunt Mena Glavin, catches the eye of Seán Dóta, an elderly farmer in search of a wife. Dóta enlists the help of a wily matchmaker, Thomasheen Seán Rua, to persuade Mike and Mena to give up the girl, promising to make it worth their while.
The narrative is propelled by the calculating deceptions of Mena and Thomasheen, the two characters with the most to gain.
For Mena, played by Kristin Witterschein, making the match means ridding herself of both Sive (Yvette Bourgeois) and Mike’s nagging mother (Janet Shea), not to mention the 200 quid she’ll get for her trouble.
For Thomasheen, played by James Bartelle, the payday promised by Dóta (Ron Gural) is less extravagant, but still enough for him to gamble on a brighter future.
The chemistry between Witterschein and Bartelle drives many of the show’s best moments, as these two co-conspirators, thick as thieves, commit themselves to a fierce attack on all fronts in an effort to make this wedding happen.
The teenaged Sive is helpless in the face of Mena and Thomasheen’s onslaught, and Mike, in an anguished and doubt-filled performance by Alex Martinez Wallace, doesn’t fare much better.
Their staunchest foe is Nanna Glavin, Mena’s sharp-tongued mother-in-law, who aids and abets Sive’s secret romance with young Liam Scuab (Joel Derby).
When Witterschein and Shea — as Mena and Nanna — face off, round after round, the insults fly freely in memorable exchanges that quickly veer from witty banter to scathing put-downs.
Adding to the turmoil are a pair of “tinkerers” who occasionally burst into the Glavin home uninvited.
Played by John Grimsley and A.J. Allegra, the travelling gypsy beggars inject a bit of madness into the play, from Grimsley’s haggard fortune-telling to Allegra’s improvised folk songs, banged out on an Irish hand drum.
While the beginning of the second act loses some momentum as plot twists are explained and deliberated, the play soon gets back on track, sending the characters crashing toward a powerful ending.
Throughout the play, Keane’s mastery of the Irish art of blarney — acrobatic language that swoops and swirls before landing with a laugh or a well-timed punch — shines brightly, and the cast brings the script to life with their performances.
The adopted Irish brogues might sound put-on to a resident of County Kerry, but to the average American ear, the dialect rings true.
“Sive” is the most conventionally staged drama of the NOLA Project’s season thus far, particularly compared with the immersive, site-specific “Clown Bar,” or its production of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
While popular in Keane’s native Ireland, “Sive” is relatively unheralded in the United States, though, based on this production, it’s hard to see why. Keane’s writing maintains the fierce immediacy characteristic of popular American playwrights from the same period — Williams, Albee, and Miller, for instance — and “Sive” includes plenty of meaty roles. The NOLA Project proves that “Sive” deserves more attention stateside, and gives audiences an opportunity to see this rarely produced gem.