By Mike “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
On the coast of County Kerry, on the desolate cliffs of Southwest Ireland, an old man (John Henry Steelman) writhes in his deathbed in the final full day of life. Enter a thatcher, Peadar Minogue (Byron Anthony), who wanders in looking for work. He finds far more than he bargained for in John Brendan Keane’s gloomy, lyrical love story, “Sharon’s Grave.”
Minogue is immediately smitten with Trassie Conlee (Karen Baum), a mere slip of a lass, tending to her dying da. The beautiful young woman is so overwhelmed in her familial duties, caring for her sick father and looking after her younger brother Neelus (Alec Silberblatt), she doesn’t even notice the way Peadar looks at her…with fire in his eyes.
Meanwhile, Trassie’s brother spent the day cliff side, overlooking the Atlantic, staring into a churning abyss below, the eponymous Sharon’s Grave. Neelus recounts the myth of Sharon and her crippled handmaiden and how the two perished in the dark waters below. Hint: The Gaelic folktale features prominently in the play, and not just metaphorically.
As Donal Conlee lay dying, his brother’s children, Dinzie (James FitzGerald) and Jack (J. Alex Noble) arrive to lay a claim to the Conlee domicile. Dinzie is a ruinous wreck of a human, deformed physically on the outside with a hump and useless legs. It doesn’t take long to learn that the crooked cousin far more twisted on the inside; devious, maniacal, murderous. Without the luxury of a wheelchair, he rides on his brother’s back, treating the sturdier Jack like his pet pony.
Dinzie terrorizes and taunts his cousins in the Conlee clan. Convinced that if he had a home to call his own, he can woo a woman to be his wife. His desperation and villainy grow once the Banshee wails and Donal shuffles off this mortal coil. His master plan involves institutionalizing feeble-minded Neelus and exiling Trassie to his parent’s home. However, Peadar’s timely arrival has thrown a wrench into his wicked plans.
Dinzie hires Pats Bo Bwee (Martin Giles), a Celtic Shaman, blustering about like Prospero with a hammer, to assess Neelus’s mind, and institutionalize the boy. He gleefully harasses the lad.
Dinzie’s determination to take over the Conlee abode grows, and he vows to have the house by any means necessary. Villainy ensues.
PICT Classic Theater has a reputation for excellence, and the actors do a remarkable job, but special attention must be made.
FitzGerald is magnificent as the heinous hunchback, spewing vile epithets, swilling whiskey, and brandishing a dagger. He’s ready to slice anyone who stands in his way. FitzGerald plays against type, normally cast as comic relief. In “Sharon’s Grave,” the amiable actor is demanding, desperate and despicable. It’s a stunning performance from a man who played meek and mousy a merely a month ago in “How the Other Half Loves.” The juxtaposition is hilarious. He is so utterly immersed in his character, you want to rise up from your seat in the audience and smack him in the face with a shovel.
Giles is electrifying as the shamanistic charlatan. It’s another superb performance in a terrific cast.
To be fair, FitzGerald and Giles have the most boisterous and bellicose roles in the play, and they give blustery, full-bodied performances.
PICT keeps moving the bar higher with visual design. Johnmichael Bohach’s set is stunning. It is a rustic, earthy, unsophisticated and ancient Irish home plopped down in the middle of the Henry Heymann as if it landed there in Dorothy Gale’s Tornado. Moody lighting and sound design, from Keith A. Truax and Elizabeth Atkinson, respectively, add to the visual experience. Director Aoife Spillane-Hinks makes great use of the sound and space.
If you can get past the off-putting title, “Sharon’s Grave” is actually a delight.
(“Sharon’s Grave” runs till August 1 at the Henry Heymann Theater, inside the Stephen Foster Memorial Theater, 4301 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213)