- Courtesy Of Joey Moro
- David Mason and Kathy McCafferty
Behind any given door, someone's story is taking place. In its world premiere at the Dorset Playhouse, Thirst puts viewers inside a kitchen on an August day in 1912. Playwright Ronán Noone creates three working-class characters making their unsteady way in America. They also happen to be the people who exist offstage in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night.
The upstage swinging door leads to the dining room of O'Neill's tragic Tyrone family, who spend the day trapped in a wounding cycle of blame and guilt, well beyond the audience's earshot. The kitchen is occupied by people whose troubles are real enough, but these are people who are able to care for each other. They tease and bicker, fight and fret, but their problems take place within a comedy, and Thirst ends with an invitation to feel the sweet smack of hope hit your heart.
Bridget emigrated from Ireland 16 years ago and is the Tyrones' cook. Her niece, the much younger Cathleen, arrived more recently; she has a denser brogue and a more playful attitude as she assists in the kitchen and serves meals. Jack, the chauffeur, grew up poor in this seaside town dominated by summer houses.
Bridget survives behind harsh, cynical armor. She's hardest on herself, aware that her affinity for drinking has too much in common with the way the Tyrone men are busy destroying themselves. Jack can reproach her for self-pity but only because he knows it well — he once took to drink when facing his wife's illness and death. And Cathleen, young and delighted by life, receives a letter from home that shatters her gaiety.
When Noone invented stories for people far in the background of someone else's play, he plotted their actions against the morning-to-midnight arc of Long Day's Journey. Noone sprinkles in details for those who can recognize them — that phone ringing is the news that Edmund has tuberculosis, for example. But viewers don't need to know anything about the Tyrones; the characters in Thirst stand alone.
Noone's neat use of a 24-hour cycle paralleling O'Neill's play is a nice nod to theater history, but it doesn't especially enrich the story. Thirst is more counterpoint than companion to the autobiographical Long Day's Journey, and comparisons make no sense. O'Neill was confronting the psychological torment in his own family, while Noone touches on the sacrifices that immigrants make in an entertaining story.
Director Theresa Rebeck gives each performer the space and time to create a memorable character. Rebeck knows how to keep the comic energy snapping while allowing perfect storytelling pauses to show the characters making decisions. They always have time to think, and the audience can savor their jokes and their reactions.
Rebeck uses the physical action of the real work in a kitchen to choreograph an intricate and sinuous dance. Jack curls over a plate, always hungry for food and for Bridget's attention; Cathleen lights up as she swings her skirt; Bridget channels her self-reproach through bursts of anger at dishes and pots. They jostle each other, helping or hindering — but always connecting.
Kathy McCafferty, as Bridget, excels at the challenge of conveying the text while accomplishing real tasks. As she cooks, McCafferty tells her character's story of hard work in word and deed. And when Bridget discloses her source of sorrow, McCafferty gives it poignant dignity. Her intensity sharpens the character's choices; McCafferty can put on a hat like a declaration of war.
Meg Hennessy plays Cathleen with exuberance, ending her movements in twirls as if she can't keep joy — or is it recklessness? — at bay. The character as written is tough to follow. Exactly how hard does heartbreak hit Cathleen? Does she have dreams or just excuses? And is she James Tyrone's victim, acolyte or puppet master? Noone can't decide, leaving Hennessy to emphasize — beautifully — the character's firecracker vivacity without any way of revealing what makes her tick.
As Jack, David Mason stands tall, like the warrior the character admires. He may wear a mechanic's overalls with a torn knee and grease stains, but he has a graceful pride. Jack has seized a second chance at life, and Mason shows the hope thrumming through him but never lets a fairy tale conceal the weight of past mistakes.
Light that expresses time of day at the seaside is powerful magic, and lighting designer Mary Ellen Stebbins washes the kitchen with moving sunlight, ticking like a clock. Within scenes, Stebbins sometimes punches too hard to underline a mood change, but the transitions from scene to scene are brilliant, showing both the passage of time and a shift in atmosphere.
The light is also wondrously powerful because scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader are masters of visual density, stockpiling each surface and corner with objects to illuminate. The audience is transported to a 1912 kitchen, chockablock with pans, graters and flour sacks. Bridget takes butter out of an icebox, washes dishes in a footed sink and cooks scrambled eggs on a smoking stove. Past the swinging door, the characters perform their hired roles, but around the big kitchen table they enjoy the special privacy of a workplace, free to steal a strawberry or shed a tear.
Costume designer Fabian Fidel Aguilar captures the period with grand strokes of just-right sleeves, shoulders and collars, plus details on each apron and a color palette that hint at each character's attitude.
By supporting a new play with superb production, astute direction and winning performances, Dorset proves its commitment to nurturing theater itself. For proof of the glory of live performance, just watch these three fascinating actors connect on a stunning set with light that could illustrate the book of Genesis. The play's outcome is left as hazy as the seaside fog, but it's certain to include happiness, and audiences will leave buoyed up and floating.