The title of The Suitcase Under the Bed is both self-effacing and self-referential. With this production, Mint Theater Company’s Artistic Director Jonathan Bank continues its commitment to staging, publishing and promoting the works of Irish playwright Teresa Deevy (1894-1963), who made a splash early in her career at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, then found a home writing for radio and smaller Irish stages. This new Mint offering of Deevy short pieces proves a delectable and delicate vaudeville.
The four one-act plays about contemporary 1930s life are set in various Irish locales. “Strange Birth” is in the hallway of a middle class urban townhouse; “In the Cellar of My Friend” is in a rural residence; “Holiday House” is in a rented rural estate; “The King of Spain’s Daughter” transpires along a rural road traversed by townsfolk and laborers yearning for love. A flexible and evocative set by Vicki R. Davis splendidly serves all these stories, and costumes by Andrea Varga richly and variously drape the characters, from the rags of day laborers to the country day-wear of the upper crust.
Six performers stretch their acting, singing and wig-wearing chops in three of these plays, which are world premieres (“Strange Birth,” “In the Cellar of My Friend,” “Holiday House”), while the fourth play (“The King of Spain’s Daughter”) is a US premiere. The carefully calibrated repertory ensemble finds unique characters and tones among these four quite distinct stories and two entr’acte recitations (provided in a program insert for those inspired to read along). Ellen Adair, Gina Costigan, Sarah Nicole Deaver, Cynthia Mace, Aidan Redmond, Colin Ryan and A.J. Shively each have their moments in the sun. Kudos, too, to frequent Mint collaborator Amy Stoller for dialect work to hone accents that are coherent and consistent within each piece — and distinct from piece to piece.
But Mace’s work in this evening of repertory constitutes the spine of the evening. She demonstrates stunning stagecraft in various wigs, costumes and adornments, and she evokes a dizzying swath of urban and rural denizens. One minute she’s a poor villager in “The King of Spain’s Daughter,” later on, she’s a knowing, middle-class apartment dweller in “Strange Birth” who clearly observes the subtle evidence of a love story between two other characters. Her maiden Aunt Patty of “In the Cellar of My Friend” keeps house for her widower-lawyer brother and quietly hints, in a Jane Austen manner, at the limited roles for women in the culture of that time. “When you’re only the sister,” she notes to a visitor, “you hear nothing.” Aunt Patty knows her place yet observes all, and instructs the young people who appear to be confused about their love lives until they aren’t. In “Holiday House,” Mace is the society matron Mater, who has rented a fancy rural estate for a summer vacation with her adult children. In sum, it’s resonant stagecraft without being domineering; it’s a study in evoking full characterizations with small moves and distinct dialect work.
And what of the title that stitches together this evening of stories with no beds or suitcases? The Mint deserves all credit for discovering, staging and now publishing the works of Deevy — these closely observed stories of small towns and class in conflict and romance and legacies, with loads of humor and warmth. In Bank’s director’s note, we learn that the title comes not from the subject matter of any of the playwright’s stories but rather the research process that brought her voice into the world. Bank discovered previously unpublished playscripts, including these one acts, in the playwright family home long after her death. Bank’s marvelous research journey is honored in the title, then, as a complement to the voice of the playwright.
The wonder of the evening also comes from the fact that these gems do deserve to live in the light of day, to be added to the canon, to be familiar to us as part of the early-20th-century English language theater. I might quibble that the title privileges process over play, that it values credit for the restoration of a legacy over of sure, true voice of Deevy as a playwright herself.
Still, the Mint deserves kudos for getting these stories out of the suitcase, for seeing to it that they live and they breathe at last on stage. And Deevy surely deserves credit for giving birth to these worlds and these characters. Call it Stories From the Irish Quilt, call it Pour the Tea, but whatever you do, go see this production.