By Sarah Downs

The Aran Islands, presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre, is gorgeous, captivating theater.  Brilliantly adapted by Joe O’Byrne from the journals of J.M. Synge in which he recounts his many visits to the Aran Islands at the turn of the 20th century, the play comprises anecdotes of Synge’s experience.  He spent most of his time on the island of Inishmore, which he considered the ‘most primitive’ of the three islands (and therefore, to him, the most appealing.)  With every word you can feel Synge’s deep connection to the mystery and stark beauty he encountered.

The Irish Repertory has contrived a visually compelling format that reaches through the flatness of a viewing screen to invent a three-dimensional experience that is sui generis.  The production layers visual effect atop the live performance filmed inside a theater.  It is an innovation which I hope they will retain going forward.

Wisps of fog and photographic images of a bleak island landscape, with lichen covered stone and dried grass enhance Synge’s description of the environment.  Desolate, uniform, proscribed, it is a place of limited land and limitless sea.  And yet, in contrast to the gloom of grey stone and grey skies, the people of the island possess astounding vitality, challenging the barren landscape to conquer their spirit.

Synge describes a world in which Catholicism owes much to its pagan predecessor; stone memorials to the dead, topped with crosses line the road while pre-Medieval, stone, beehive huts still stand in the fields.  Paganism and religion have grown together, entwined in a culture as unique as the dialect of Irish the Aran natives speak.  As Synge writes,  “On Inishmore one is forced to believe in a sympathy of man and nature.”  He is also struck by seemingly spontaneous parallels between the folktales of Aran and those found in the rest of Europe.  However, folklore doesn’t just underscore the lives of the inhabitants of Aran.  It is their lives, as real as the stone underfoot.

Brendan Conroy as J.M. Synge delivers spell binding narrative, as he weaves stories within stories.  He brings every word to life.  Conroy wears the narrative like his frayed, tweed jacket.  He knows every stitch.  Conroy transforms with each characterization, acting right down to his toes.  He inhabits not just the individuals but the characters in the folktales they tell.  At one moment he is Synge, describing a funeral or a boat ride on a storm-tossed sea, at another he is an ancient, crippled man sitting by the fire, his hands gnarled and back bent with rheumatism.  As the ancient man speaks, he transforms again through folktale, into a whining old woman, or a cackling devil by the side of the road.  Conroy’s performance is as colorful as the Aran landscape is bleak.

In the ‘real world’ live performance aspect of this production, lighting proves key.  Conleth White conjures the warm red hues of firelight, cool yellow sunlight or the dark, opaque blue of nighttime in subtle layers that lend nuance to the simple backdrop of rope and canvas, designed by Margaret Nolan.  The wistful, traditional music composed by Kieran Duddy, with flute, zither and a faraway drum evoke the shores of Ireland, easing us into the mood of the performance.  Similarly, Marie Tierney’s artfully assembled costume design of nondescript, shapeless wool and cotton conveys the cold as much as any sound of the wind and rain.

Synge studied music initially, which influence figures strongly in the syntax and rhythm of his storytelling, as well as color of his verbal imagery.  He loads the narrative with impact.  A simple description of a young girl mixes the personal with the grandiose,  “Sometimes she is a simple peasant.  Sometimes she seems to be looking out at the world with prehistoric disillusion, to sum up in her gray blue eyes the whole external despondency of clouds and seas.”

When Synge announces he is leaving the island, one feels his regret.  The water between the coast of Galway and the island of Inishmore seems deeper than a moat and longer than eternity.  Like the Flying Dutchman appearing out of the mist, the Arans float on a rolling sea, just offshore but perpetually out of reach, unless one is willing to brave the rough crossing.

Happily, the Irish Repertory will ease that rough crossing by offering this and all of its other pandemic performances on demand.  Livestream information can be found on their website.

THE ARAN ISLANDS, A Performance Onscreen, written by J.M. Synge, adapted and directed by Joe O’Byrne, starring Brendan Conroy.  Music by Kieran Duddy, set design by Margaret Nolan, lighting design by Conleth White, camera & editing by Joe O’Byrne and costume design by Marie Tierney.  Filmed at The New Theatre and Smock Alley Theatre.

A Co-motion Media Production presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre.  Run Time: 90 minutes, with a 10-minute intermission.  Runs March 16 – March 28, 2021 *Open Captioned performances available.  Suggested donation of $25 for those who can afford to give.  RESERVE NOW. Your event link will be emailed 2 hours before your selected performance begins.