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Three Small Irish Masterpieces

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The Pot of Broth: Colin Lane, David O’Hara, Clare O’Malley  Photo: Carol Rosegg


                                              By Fern Siegel


There is something primal and poetic in Three Small Masterpieces, at the Irish Rep. That’s thanks to the stellar writers — William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge — who capture the pathos of the rural Irish at the turn of the 20th century. They were also responsible for founding the Abbey Theatre in 1904. 


The three one acts have been collected under the audacious heading “small masterpieces.” Pot of Broth, The Rising of the Moon and Riders to the Sea are a triptych that underscores the mission of the Irish Literary Renaissance: to promote a strong nationalism, Gaelic literary heritage and the dignity of rural life.


(Later, in reaction to rural realism, Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock explored the dramas of Dublin slum life.)


Here, the focus is the trials and tribulations of those in difficult circumstances — and how they cope. The set opens with the humorous The Pot of Broth, by William Butler Yeats, collaborating with Lady Gregory. A hungry tramp (David O’Hara) enters a home desperate for a meal. To secure it, he dupes the couple, especially wife Sibby (Clare O’Malley) into believing he has a magical stone that can transform ordinary broth into a delicious soup!


Aided by a gift for blarney, the tramp sneaks in ingredients Sibby has brought for dinner, including a chicken. He is an entertaining trickster, a classic figure in folklore, gaining advantage with sly charm — and ensuring delightful theatrical fare.


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The Rising of the Moon: Colin Lane, Adam Petherbridge    Photo: Carol Rosegg


The second, more serious work is Lady Gregory’s The Rising of The Moon, which takes on a political hue. Born into the upper classes, Gregory’s sympathies were for the Irish struggle for freedom from British rule.


First staged in 1907 by the Irish National Theatre, the play’s characters are torn between duty and patriotism. The backdrop is the Anglo-Irish War.


An older sergeant (Colin Lane) is standing guard at the harbor, hoping to capture an escaped Irish patriot (Adam Petherbridge). The patriot, disguised as a ragged man who sings ballads to sailors, is eager to enter the harbor. The issue for the sergeant is the price of capture: £100 pounds — a sum so gigantic he can’t even fathom how to spend it.


A poor man in need of money, he is torn between economic realities and his own inclinations, as the escapee sings patriotic songs and attempts to awaken his nationalistic sentiments. However, the sergeant knows his duty — law and order. He bemoans the dangers of his job, even as he acknowledges the prisoner’s popularity.


It’s a moving and tense moment — will the sergeant choose duty, enriching himself, or align with his people?


Gregory extolled music and folklore as tools to help unite the Irish — and it is genuinely heartfelt when the men join together in song. The play, named after the famed ballad, is a stirring call for rebellion: the “pikes must be together at the rising of the moon.” 


Both Lane and Petherbridge are adept at mining their characters’ humanity and want, exposing the struggle for existence.


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Riders To The Sea: Clare O’Malley, Jennifer McVey   Photo: Carol Rosegg


Struggle and pain are also the cornerstones of J.M. Synge’s Riders To The Sea, the final entry. The saddest of the three, it is set in the Aran Islands, at the mouth of Galway Bay. Life is basic, and death is ever present. A mother named Maurya (a touching Terry Donnelly) has lost four sons and a husband to the sea.


Now Michael, her favorite, is presumed drowned. As she and daughters Nora (Clare O’Malley) and Cathleen (Jennifer McVey) cope with the unimaginable loss, her last son Bartley (Adam Petherbridge) is determined to sell a horse in Connemara, which means crossing the often-treacherous sea by ferry.


Synge wrote several plays about the Arans and in all he reveals the naked suffering endured for generations.   


Deftly directed by Charlotte Moore, the actors, who often play double roles, mine this emotional terrain with true feeling. Moore economically uses James Morgan’s evocative sets and Michael Gottlieb's lighting, to recreate a time and place with care.


Three Small Irish Masterpieces is, in its own quiet way, a big achievement.


Three Small Irish Masterpieces

Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22 St. Manhattan (Through April 22)

For tickets visit:

Running Time: 75 minutes no intermission