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Out of Sight

Seeing Is Deceiving In Little Seen Irish Play

THE EYES HAVE IT: (from left) Katherine Lyons and Marc Horwitz feel their way through their days.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/26/2006

The Well of the Saints

By John Millington Synge

At the Performance Workshop Theatre through May 21

A holy man comes walking barefoot down a dirt road in eastern Ireland. He comes to a crossroads where two middle-aged blind people, Martin and Mary Doul, sit on a stone wall, stripping reeds for baskets. “The Saint,” as everyone calls him, takes pity on the two beggars, dressed in their filthy tatters. In the tin coffeepot hanging from his neck is some magical water from a well on the Aran Islands, and when he sprinkles that water on their blind eyes suddenly they can see.

Like today’s social workers, teachers, and urban planners, the Saint acts out of good intentions, but there’s also a touch of arrogance in his gift: He assumes that the less fortunate would be much better off if only they were more like us. How grateful they will be to be able to see the world as it really is and to work for a living. But Martin and Mary aren’t grateful. They turn against their benefactors when they are given menial jobs to replace their freewheeling wandering and begging. They turn against each other when each sees how old and unkempt the other is, instead of the handsome lover each had imagined. And all they do is moan and complain.

John Millington Synge’s The Well of the Saints is often very funny, almost as funny as his best-known play, The Playboy of the Western World. But like that later work, Saints is laced with sobering thoughts about the ways a community deals with outsiders. The current production at the Performance Workshop Theatre doesn’t milk all the comedy and tragedy from the script, but the show gets enough to be well worth seeing, especially because it is so rarely staged in America.

The best things about this production are the two leads. As Mary Doul (Doul is the Gaelic word for “blind”), Katherine Lyons is long and lanky with dark curly hair, her face scrunched up from years of hard living, and her Irish accent is as thin, hard, and sharp as barbed wire. Before she ever meets the Saint, she is pecking at her husband’s foolish notions and reminding him how lucky he is to have a beauty like her. When she gains her sight and realizes that she’s no beauty at all, she covers her anguish by attacking Martin all the more. Lyons reveals not only Mary’s pride but also the desperation just beneath it.

Even better is Marc Horwitz as Martin. In his shapeless gray hat and torn black coat, he struts around as if he were a judge in a wig and robe. When he’s blind, he sees the world according to his own design—and he makes us see it too through his enthusiastic descriptions. Even when he regains his sight, he still sees the world of his imagination. He believes that he is horribly oppressed at his job, though he must be the world’s laziest, whiniest employee. Still in his shabby clothes, he proposes to the local beauty, Molly Byrne, even though she’s engaged to his employer.

As Molly, Amy Dawson has both the good looks and haughty flirtatiousness to drive Martin crazy. At moments, Dawson is very good, egging Martin on just so she can laugh at him, but at other times she appears to lose focus and fails to get all the laughs and winces the script provides. Much of the supporting cast is similarly inconsistent, coming alive in certain scenes and merely standing around in others.

But when Lyons and Horwitz dominate the stage as Martin and Mary the show is a delight. When their newfound sight fades, Martin and Mary stumble, literally, upon one another again and effect a very prickly reconciliation. When the Saint returns to the region with his magic water, the couple has to wrestle with a difficult decision. Is it better to see the world as it really is or as they’d like it to be? Is it better to be at the bottom of the seeing world or at the top of the blind world?

Sitting side by side on a stone wall in Danielle DeFrancesco’s simple but lovely set, Martin and Mary imagine a future for themselves as white-haired wanderers living amid the birds and sheep. Synge’s peasant poetry is so vivid and the close-lidded actors so expressive that we can see that future too. But when the Saint returns, Mary’s conviction wavers and she doesn’t know what to do. In the tiny Performance Workshop Theatre basement space, we in the audience feel as if we’re part of the crowd around her, urging her to be sensible, to be more like us.

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