Classic Themes Collide in Irish Family Drama ‘Sharon’s Grave’

Dinzie Conlee (James FitzGerald) on the back of his brother Jack ( J. Alex Noble) to get a better look as to whether their uncle Donal Conlee ( John Henry Steelman) has died yet.

Dinzie Conlee (James FitzGerald) on the back of his brother Jack ( J. Alex Noble) to get a better look as to whether their uncle Donal Conlee ( John Henry Steelman) has died yet.

PICT Classic Theatre’s Sharon’s Grave is an all-encompassing Irish drama built upon all the classic fault lines of death, love, mythology, greed, poverty, and humor. The play basically contains three stories interwoven together: a love story, a fight for land, and the influence of Celtic mythology set in 1925, County Kerry, Ireland. I viewed the play on its first preview night.

Sharon’s Grave was written by Irish playwright John B. Keane (1928 – 2002), who was born and raised in the Western Ireland town of Listowel, County Kerry. After opening a pub there in 1955, which bears his name and is still run by son Billy, he started his writing career. Could he have started out by listening to conversations between patrons in the pub and honing his fine talents in dialogue writing, in much the same way that August Wilson took notes on overheard conversations while eating in restaurants and cafes? Sharon’s Grave director, Aoife Spillane-Hinks, has visited Keane’s Pub to get a feel for the community and people who influenced his writing.

The actors in Sharon’s Grave deliver beautifully lyrical dialogue often in a rapid fire manner and with authentic-sounding Irish brogues. Many of the actors are veterans of other PICT performances.

Produced in the intimate confines of the Henry Heymann Theater in the Stephen Foster Memorial, the audience almost has the feeling of being in the play. This is especially helped by the actors often times entering and exiting scenes from aisles in the audience seating areas.

The stage backdrop is a simple, thatched-roof, stone-walled Irish cottage facade with a few tables and chairs, and copper pitchers on a shelf. The cottage has a wooden door with a big sliding latch, which serves as the primary entrance to the stage. A semicircle of medium-sized rocks lines the outer perimeter of the stage. My theater companion, who last year traveled extensively in Ireland, thought they could be symbolic of the ancient Celtic mystical rock formations she saw there.

Family Conflict

The first act starts with the father of the Conlee Clan, Donal Conlee (John Henry Steelman), lying on his death-bed, moaning occasionally. Someone knocks on the door and when no one comes to answer it, a man who is looking for directions, and possibly to do thatching or other work, Peadar Minogue (Byron Anthony), enters and sees the man laying on the bed unresponsive. He asks if he can help, and Donal remains unresponsive. After a couple of minutes Donal’s daughter, Trassie (Karen Baum) enters and is surprised to see the stranger in the room with her father. Peadar, a strong silent type, and Trassie, played exquisitely by Baum as a very independent Irish woman, discuss possible work. It is decided Peadar will stay for the night and help with chores.

Peadar then meets Trassie’s brother Neelus (Alec Silberblatt), a happy but easily frightened young man, who is suffering from some sort of mental disorder. Silberblatt plays his character with a high degree of skill and energy. Neelus is enchanted by Irish mythology such as Celtic princesses and banshees. Peadar and Neelus develop a fast friendship—a good thing because they are both sharing the same bed.

Dinzie is startled as Donal rises up on his death bed to angrily point at him. Jack looks on and Trassie (Karen Baum) tries to comfort her father.

Dinzie is startled as Donal rises up on his deathbed to angrily point at him. Jack looks on and Trassie (Karen Baum) tries to comfort her father.

Just when things are developing in a nice way there’s another knock on the door and again no one is there to answer. In comes Conlee family cousins Dinzie Conlee (James FitzGerald) and his brother Jack (J. Alex Noble). They share a special bond. Dinzie is a venom-spewing man who could deflate the fun out of any occasion, while brother Jack is a simpler person who is easily ordered around by his brother. FitzGerald does a great job portraying this bombastic, twisted character. Noble does well in the lesser role.

Dinzie is such a low life that he urges Donal to hurry up and die so he can inherit his house as he states it was promised to him. In a subsequent scene with Dinzie, Jack, and Trassie present, Donal rises almost to a sitting position on the bed, moans loudly and shakes his finger at Dinzie before collapsing back to a prone position. Dinzie, a man of unfortunate circumstance “needs the house and land so he can attract an old woman to take care of him.” He tells Trassie she can live at his parent’s house and Neelus will be put in the home for the mentally disabled. All of this infuriates her.

Donal dies and a wake is held at the house. Moll (Sharon Brady) and school teacher Miss Dee (Jill Keating) attend and are the subject of constantly hurled insults from Dinzie. Neelus is a shrinking violet whenever Dinzie is about.

Love Blossoms 

As Trassie and Peadar embrace and gaze into each other's eyes Pats Bo Bwee looks on.

As Trassie and Peadar embrace and gaze into each other’s eyes Pats Bo Bwee looks on.

Dinzie is thwarted in getting the house after Donal’s death by the steadfast Trassie and Peadar, who has now stayed on to work the farm long-term. This is the point where a relationship starts to develop. Peadar confesses his love to Trassie, as she is peeling and cutting potatoes, with some usual and unusual compliments, such as: “Your calves are like trouts.” They are interrupted while kissing and hugging by Neelus who understands and respects their blooming relationship.

Fans of veteran stage actor Martin Giles had to wait a while to see him. He appeared in several scenes after the intermission as pseudo-doctor Pats Bo Bwee (one of the best character names in recent memory). The doctor is summoned by Dinzie, with approval from Trassie, who wants every opportunity to help her brother Neelus get well. Dinzie wants Bo Bwee to determine that Neelus should be sent to a home so that he would be one step closer to getting the house.

Local medicine man Pats Bo Bwee (Martin Giles), left, tries to "treat" Neelus Conlee (Alec Silberblatt).

Local medicine man Pats Bo Bwee (Martin Giles), left, tries to “treat” Neelus Conlee (Alec Silberblatt).

Bo Bwee enters the scene dressed in a country gentleman’s outfit of a brown jacket, plaid vest, red tie, brown rimmed hat with a feather protruding vertically from the band. Slung over his shoulder is his bag of cures. Giles artfully pulls the various cures from his bag, including a hammer, sprig of herbs, brown bottles with cork toppers, and a jug of possibly “rheumatism medicine.” His examination of Neelus does not go well. It’s almost like a non-priest exorcism. Peadar interrupts it. Bo Bwee continues the examination off stage. He returns with a bad report and after a diatribe he hastily departs.

In the next to last scene, as a bad storm is rising, all of the story lines collide in epic fashion. Dinzie and Jack come over to the house. Dinzie demands that Trassie leave the house in the morning and says Pats Bo Bwee thinks Billy should go to the home. Peadar steps in to protect Trassie and Neelus, and goes outside to fight Jack. Dinzie attacks Trassie and Neelus intervenes.

Spoilers, including the meaning of Sharon’s Grave, have been left out of this review, as there are several interesting surprises during the course of the play. It’s not just a dialogue play, but includes a fair amount of activity and motion. Director Spillane-Hinks has the cast acting in a very smooth, well-paced manner, especially for the first preview. Sharon’s Grave is a Celtic mystical experience of its own, based on a compelling story, great acting and directing, and performed in an intimate setting. The audience enjoyed the play and gave the actors a standing ovation.

Closing Credits

Sharon’s Grave  is in the Henry Heymann Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, at the foot of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland. The play runs through August 1. For show dates, times, and tickets, visit PICT or call 412-561-6000.

Photos by Suellen Fitzsimmons courtesy of PICT Classic Theatre.

Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central Pittsburgh and a lover of great entertainment.