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BET journeys to ‘The Lonesome West’

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts

April 1, 2011

irish days “The Lonesome West” chronicles the feud between two siblings over their father’s inheritance. At right, family friend Girleen (Grace Fosler) tries to allay the concerns of Father Welsh (Nati Peleg) about the family’s future, while at left Valene (Harry Webb) threatens to shoot his sister Coleman (Jen Schiller) during one of many heated arguments.
Photos by Nate Rosenbloom/The Hoot

Brandeis Ensemble Theater brought the quintessential family from hell to life in last week’s production of “The Lonesome West,” directed by Tony Rios ’11.

The Irish-set play begins with siblings Coleman (Jen Schiller ’14) and Valene (Harry Webb ’12) burying their father, recently killed in a shotgun “accident.” Coleman and Valene’s relationship quickly deteriorates, with Valene claiming their father’s entire estate for himself, thus reducing Coleman to an unwelcome guest. The two increasingly come to blows, with only the parish priest, Father Welch (Nati Peleg ’13), interested in reconciling the siblings.

BET beautifully prepared this small-scale production, which features only four actors on stage. Audience members were actually seated on stage, bringing them closer to the tense familial dynamics playing out before their eyes. The characters themselves were confined to a small, sparsely decorated living room, with a few worn chairs and a cross appropriately setting the scene.

Any play with such a small cast of characters requires a deeply-committed cast that can truly make the show come to life. The BET production benefitted from just such a cast, all of whom brought their best Irish accents to the play.

Schiller brought a potent, kinetic anger to Coleman that could be felt in the audience. Coleman is terrifying, with each of her actions defined by a kind of violent intelligence that borders on psychosis. Not only did she “accidentally” shoot her father in the head, but she appears unafraid to use brute force on the flimsiest of pretenses. Schiller embodied these traits totally, giving the character an air akin to a cornered animal. Coleman was cast as a man in the original play, but Schiller’s incarnation holds her own in fights with her brother.

Webb similarly fleshed out dimwitted Valene, who shares Coleman’s violent streak. The key difference between Coleman and Valene, however, is that Webb has imbued his character with a sense of goofiness that humanizes him somewhat and made him less threatening. Valene is as much a figure of comic scorn as he is terrifying. At one point, Valene buys a stove and paints a possessive V on it; when Coleman teases him about it—claiming that it’s a “V for virginity,” one almost feels bad for him thanks to Webb’s ridiculous expressiveness—almost.

Peleg, meanwhile, sketched a sympathetic portrait of a priest with his portrayal of Father Welsh, the much put-upon parish priest. With the death of the Connor patriarch, Welsh launches into what the Connors call “another feckin’ crisis of faith” as he tries to understand the siblings’ aggressiveness. Peleg grants Welsh an appropriate soulfulness; serving as the straight man to the Connors’ quasi-comic ludicrousness, he never failed in drawing the audience’s attention. He helps make us care that the Connors are tearing themselves apart, that they are destined for “a sad and lonesome existence,” which is remarkable considering how loathsome they both are.

Finally, Grace Fosler ’14 brought a careless youthfulness to Girleen, the only friend that either of the Connors seem to have. Imbuing her character with a breezy sexuality, she stood out against the rage that permeated the rest of the stage. Girleen proved especially fascinating since she represented a kind of ability to change that other characters sorely lacked. Initially indifferent to the Connors’ arguing, she gradually comes to agree with Welsh. In a scene set after this change of art, Fosler proved especially impressive in her incredibly anguished reaction to a dramatic event late in the play.

Together, these actors injected playwright Martin McDonagh’s tale of familial strife with an engaging liveliness.

The staged fights between Coleman and Valene were well-coordinated, but the truly compelling thing about them was that their origins were pretty mundane and relatable. Anyone with siblings can tell you that they get a perverse enjoyment out of annoying one another. The problem with the Connor siblings is that they take this to an outrageous degree; even when they try to play nice and apologize to each other for a litany of injustices, it’s more of a competition than anything else. Even contrition is dangerous.

One of the fascinating things about McDonagh’s play is that it’s the conclusion of a trilogy of plays, all of which are set in the same west Irish town, Leenane. Characters from the other two plays are mentioned extensively, which creates a topsy-turvy feeling of community even though only four actors appear in the play. Most of these references relate to something tragic or criminal, creating the sense that violence always exists on the periphery. When Father Welsh declares Leenane “the murder capital of feckin’ Europe,” no one’s surprised.

Of course, no McDonagh production would be complete without his trademark use of colorful language—if you’ve seen his film “In Bruges,” you know what I’m taking about. “The Lonesome West” does not disappoint in this regard, with virtually every sentence promising a “feck” or two.

All in all, “The Lonesome West” proved to be a beautifully staged production that melded a standout cast with first-rate direction and script.

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