In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an estimated 4.5 million Irish immigrants left their homes on the ‘Emerald Isle’ and settled in America. They came looking for better jobs, more opportunities and an escape from the devastating Irish potato hunger. Today, 32 million Americans claim their Irish ancestry, and heritage tourism – courting the long-lost sons and daughters of Hibernia to return to the magical, shamrock-green land of poetry, pubs, céili dancing and endearing accents – is one of Ireland’s main industries. As a nation, we love the fantasy of the “Auld Sod,” which is used to sell everything from St. Patrick’s Day cards and whiskey to cereal and soap. In short, Irish Eyes Smiling is big business on both sides of the Atlantic.
This is the starting point for American Players Theater’s final production of the 2022 season – stones in his pockets, by MarieJones. The poignant play is a complex, artistically challenging two-man show about an American film company who comes to Ireland’s County Kerry to film a serious, charming, entirely fictional costume drama entitled The Quiet Valley. While the cameras capitalize on the country’s legendary natural beauty, the film’s script pokes fun at Ireland’s history, using caricatures of its residents who have been hired as extras to fill in crowd scenes. During filming, the film’s cast and crew not only ignore the region’s modern economic and social problems, they actively aggravate the situation. But overlying this plot is a fascinating study of storytelling – how powerful it is, how dangerous it can be, who is driving the narrative, and the need to separate fact from fantasy.
Under the expert direction of director Tim Ocel, stones in his pockets also showcases the wealth of talent of two actors from APT’s core company – Nate Burger and Marcus Truschinski – who not only play more than a dozen characters, but create highly detailed scenes using pantomime-like props, subtle shifts of accent and a twist of their caps, and the bobbing nods of their heads.
As the play begins on a mostly empty stage, Charlie (Burger) and Jake (Truschinski) take a break from their roles as extras and swap stories of how they became background players for “£40 a day” and all the crafting services foods they can eat. In a literal blink of an eye, they transform into a vain, insecure American starlet; a perky if forgetful production assistant; an overworked and impatient assistant director; a concerned local teenager; a talkative octogenarian whose great fame is being the last living extra in the John Wayne film The Quiet Man; and even a burly Scottish bodyguard who’s sure to beat up anyone who disturbs the film’s female lead. As the characters come and go, the scenes change from a makeshift dressing room, to a local pub, to a schoolroom, to the starlet’s trailer, to a Catholic church, to a muddy lawn in front of a movie set. Finished Mansion.
Following Burger and Truschinski through these lightning-fast transitions is just as much fun as watching them give each character a unique voice, walk, mannerisms, and point of view. Both actors make such precise, specific decisions that there’s never a moment of confusion — they just delight in their expert craft, which they make look effortless. Rest assured it’s not.
Burger’s role as Caroline, the American actress who courts one of the locals so she can practice an Irish accent she’s not talented for, is particularly inspired. With a flick of the wrist, the actress’ long locks appear, and the look in her eyes is anything but sincere. A minute later, the audience can almost see Burger’s blood pressure rising as the battered assistant director, shoulders permanently hunched and voice an octave lower, begs both the film’s fat cats and extras for cooperation.
Truschinski also amazes as an ambitious young production assistant who constantly claps her hands and chirps: “Sit down! Settle!” until she has everyone’s attention. He then switches to Sean, a drug-addicted, depressed teenager whose dreams of escaping Kerry and seeing a theatrical version of America have imploded. Between these extremes, the actor simply fascinates as his main character Jake, Haunted by the idea that he could have been a better friend and role model for Sean, Truschinski’s Jake seems to swallow a fog of sadness and regret that engulfs the town after tragedy.
Like the actors’ meticulous work, which suggests a full character but depends on the audience to fill in the blanks with their own imagination, the elaborate set design and lighting convey volumes with minimal materials. Nathan Stuber’s scenic design includes an “empty” floor on the open stage, made from pieces of plywood fitted together like Tetris pieces. At first glance, they resemble a bird’s-eye view of tanned fields, either at the end of their season or suffering from drought—the complete opposite of what one would expect of this verdant land. Similarly, a piece of wood hangs over the stage like a window, but one that is opaque, preventing, rather than allowing, glimpses. Jason Fassl’s lighting design floods the theater’s back wall with a jewel-toned blue sky floating above a swath of lush, deep Kelly Green, but only during scenes where the filmmakers’ cameras are rolling. When the director yells “Cut!” the luxurious color instantly disappears.
Aside from the theatrical magic that brings the story to life, stones in his pockets is such a moving play because the script subverts our expectations in a cunning way. There’s lyrical poetry, a merry protagonist, warlike combat, binge drinking and traditional Celtic dancing (breezy choreography by Brian Cowing). But in any case, the context radically alters our feelings about the standard tropes.
The American Players Theater has produced an outstanding season this year, but this latest production, stones in his pockets, maybe the best yet. Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, this exceptional play runs in Touchstone through November 20th. It’s just an evening of theatrical magic that shouldn’t be missed.