Murphy’s ‘Drunkard’ gets fresh life, but does go on

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If there’s one thing this critic loathes more than farce, it’s melodrama. One twirl of the Snidely Whiplash moustache incites an urge to tie myself to the railroad track.

That said, Solas Nua’s production of “The Drunkard,” under the restlessly creative direction of Jessica Burgess, manages to crank new life into a creaky form. The use of masks, small wooden puppets designed by Betsy Rosen, and shadow play reminiscent of magic lantern entertainment brings vibrant visual interest to what could have been excruciating.

“The Drunkard” is also pepped up by original Irish music composed by Jesse Terrill and performed by Mr. Terrill on the fiddle and Jake Koenig on guitar, with both musicians also doubling as actors in selected scenes. The play is an adaptation of a 19th-century American temperance play. It is by leading Irish playwright Tom Murphy, who moves the action to rural Ireland in the 1800s.

The original work was a hammering morality play about the evils of drink, but Mr. Murphy adds a social reform context in a subplot about tenants’ rights, Irish politics and land ownership. He also hauls out every Irish stereotype in the canon — there’s even a Lucky Charms-like leprechaun character — and has cheery fun sending up suffering Irish mothers, tippling sods, the gentry and rosy-cheeked country maids.

The hoary plot concerns the “wee cottage” where sweet, beautiful Arabella (Julia Stemper) lives with her dying mother. The deed says they will dwell there forever, but if nefarious lawyer Phelim McGinty (Jonathon Church) has his way, the two women will be scrabbling on the streets.

Phelim’s scheme to seize all the land surrounding the village is briefly thwarted when Edward Kilcullen (Patrick Bussink), heir to his father’s real estate, falls in love and marries Arabella. For all his high-born gentility and lofty ideals, Edward has a weakness — and it comes in a bottle.

Phelim coaxes Edward to fall off the wagon during the wedding party, and what should have been marital bliss soon turns into an 80-proof nightmare. Edward is drunk all the time and boozes away what little money they have. He flees to the city in shame, consorting with floozies and other questionable characters, while Arabella and their daughter Alanna (Betsy Rosen) search the streets for him.

Just in the knick of time, Edward is saved by an 11th-hour intervention by Sir Arden Rencelaw (Steven J. Hoochuk), a local aristocrat and benefactor whose previous good deeds include returning another villager, Agnes (Stephanie Roswell), to sanity.

The cast is up to the physical and satiric rigors of the show, especially Mr. Bussink, who seems to find fresh ways to portray a serial drunk; Miss Roswell is eerily unhinged as Agnes, and Miss Rosen brings a tongue-in-cheek innocence to the plucky Alanna.

The plot is convoluted and contrived in the manner of melodrama, and you often find yourself hopelessly mired in exposition and scenes that seem to go on longer than the Potato Famine. As visually expressive and entertaining as this production of “The Drunkard” can be, no one needs to sit through a nearly three-hour melodrama.

WHAT: “The Drunkard” by Tom Murphy

WHERE: Solas Nua at Georgetown University’s Devine Theatre, Davis Arts Center, 37th and O streets NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays through July 29. 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 2-5.

TICKETS$15 to $20

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