Anti-heroes are all the rage. But before Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Frank Underwood, there was Bull McCabe. He is the definitive 20th-century anti-hero: a rugged farmer, a loving father, a brutish bully who stops at nothing to establish his empire of acreage. McCabe is the force behind John B. Keane's 1965 rural Irish drama, "The Field," an Irish Players of Rochester production playing through March 29 at the Multi-use Cultural Community Center.
For newcomers to Irish theater, "The Field" is a blessing. Traditional Irish elements flood the stage: pub life, Irish ballads, storytelling, Celtic music, and family traditions. It ruminates over many of Keane's common themes -- controversial in his day -- who exposed the shifting socio-economic and religious tensions beneath the everyday lives of those in Ireland. Besides a few jabs at the Catholic church and local law enforcement, "The Field" is relatively light on politics. Rather, Keane weaves a humanistic tale that illuminates the dirt of the individual -- men and women with secrets, sweeping their moral complexities under the rug. And let them lay there, Keane seems to say; let the ghosts of the past sleep.
Bull McCabe (Bill Alden) is a small-town Irish farmer looking to acquire a field adjacent to his own acreage. He and his son have grazed on it for five years, raising cattle and recuperating the once abandoned soil. This field features a natural water source, too -- a critical element lacking in McCabe's land -- and when Mrs. Butler (Barbara Lobb) decides to sell it, McCabe's harsh hands attempt to strong arm a low ball offer. Mrs. Butler, however, doesn't play ball.
Local actor Bill Alden is the latest to fill Bull McCabe's menacing boots (previous actors include Ray McAnally, Brian Dennehy, and Richard Harris). For this play to work, the actor's performance must be sharp and believable, and Alden hits it out of the park. He embodies Bull McCabe with a ferocious energy that never quits. It's a kind of powerhouse performance rarely seen in community theater.
Tyler Lucero plays Tadhg, McCabe's son and heir to almost-nothing. His character is mostly a muscle, but in a pivotal scene between father and son, Lucero provides a poignant juxtaposition to Alden's otherwise completely ravenous character. The two talk of the world, women, and the past -- and it is heartfelt. Tadhg's balance adds a much needed depth to McCabe, who without it, could suffer from one-dimensionality.
The rest of the cast works well enough together. Ken Dauer plays pub owner and auctioneer Mick Flanagan, an obsequious bystander to McCabe's path of rage. Kathy Dauer is Maimie Flanagan, Mick's wife, barkeep, and mother of nine children. She's flirty and strong willed -- it's a shame she isn't given more to work with in this play.
We never see all nine of the Flanagan children, but we do see three little ones (Evelynn Marie Sullivan, Justin Alexander Sullivan, and Milo Ames) and an eldest, Leamy Flanagan (Kiefer Schenk). Leamy's role is small, but the character excels, adding a moral backbone to Keane's otherwise modernist narrative.
Director Jean Gordon Ryon plays "The Field" straight. There's no flash or stylistic revisionism here; instead, she offers a production with a classic vision that is taut and well executed. When the play is funny it garners laughs, when it's intense it stiffens backs. At times, I wished the performance would've taken more chances, but, otherwise, I was rarely left unsatisfied. Ryon's production is rich and exhibits hard work.
On May 20, Ryon and her crew hit the road when "The Field" will perform at the Acting Irish International Theatre Festival in Cincinnati.
In the end, "The Field" is a story of moral dissonance. McCabe is a menacing villain, sure, but the audience must consider him. After all, doesn't McCabe have a point? Who has more right to this field than he? When he screams at an out-of-towner, "You don't know about land. You're a stranger," it sounds old-fashioned, presumptive and ignorant, but at the same time, it is completely understandable. Bull McCabe the best type of anti-hero: One that we can all relate to.