live The Loves of Cass Maguire Town Hall Theatre, Galway

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The Independent Culture
With Mayo woman and company patron, President Mary Robinson, in attendance, there was a charged sense of western pride at Tuesday's mostly black-tie opening of Druid's 21st birthday show at Galway's Town Hall Theatre. As though time-fractured back a decade for the occasion, Druid's founder members - Marie Mullen and Mick Lally (with company stalwart since 1979, Ray McBride) under Garry Hynes's direction - occupied the same roles as they did in 1975 in Brian Friel's The Loves of Cass Maguire, one of three full-length shows they opened on successive nights as their first rep-style summer season.

Friel's 1966 play, premiered on Broadway (for only nine performances) after the success of Philadelphia, Here I Come!, again concerns emigration, as a sort of bleak mirror-piece to the bitter-sweet optimism of the latter. Refracted through the kaleidoscopically shifting flashbacks of the 70- year-old Cass (Marie Mullen), it pieces together her return - after 52 years of a boozy, off-Skid Row hand-to-mouth existence - to her brother's family home, and her dreamy accommodation to her fate in the nearby rest- home, on the site of the old workhouse.

Originally aired on radio, its staging requirements demand much flexibility, floating as it does between reality and memory. Yet Hynes, with characteristically manic focus on emotional undercurrents and moment-to-moment pacing, has produced another magnetically intense, highly strung orchestration of devices which steadily accumulate meaning. In a way, it's a typical Hynes vehicle: revolving around a tormented, fiercely unconventional female character, it's treated with that characteristic pent-up unleashing of energy which long ago earned Druid a pioneering position on the Irish theatrical landscape as, if you like, the authentic primordial howl of an allegorical, contemporary, rural middle-Ireland.

Cass hinges on Mullen's mesmeric central performance as the whiskey-slugging, Brooklynised bag-lady; her waspish, stooped, lip-licking persona masking a soft, loser's humanity - even a paradoxical beauty. In Frielian meta- theatrical style, she marches hollering through the auditorium after the action has begun, breaking and entering the Fourth Wall before losing contact with the audience as she becomes enmeshed in her story.

It's one of a number of devices that don't entirely add up, but the seamless way the company handles it all, punches it through. As Harry, Cass's successful businessman brother, Mick Lally puts across measured, pained authority; as his permed, conservative wife, Marion O'Dwyre positively glints with bourgeois distaste. There is less interwoven consistency to the more marginal characters: their student son (Eric Lacey); the mentally disconnected wheelchair- ridden mother (Anna Manahan); even Ray McBride's pensioner in the rest home, a stand-alone piece of strong character acting.

More acidly pleasurable are John Rogan and Rosalind Knight's eccentric fellow inmates, Mr Ingram and Trilbe Costello. Wrapped up in the cult of each other's adaptive delusions, they enthral the attention: Rogan's hesitant, self-effacing bookishness; his impeccable, soft-spoken delivery ever silenced by Knight's imperious elocution, her gimlet stare like that of an ancient, horn-rimmed, predatory gannet.

In the new 400-seater theatre, there is a feeling that Cass needs to fan out and breathe a bit, yet ranging tableau-like around Rob Howell's beautifully lit central-symmetric set of doors and moonlit cloudscapes, it may well follow The Beauty Queen of Leenane to London, where the latter is booked into the Duke of York for early next year. Considering the audience reception on the night - and Hynes's recently announced Associate Directorship of London's Royal Court - methinks that's more than a possibility.

To Sat. Booking: 00 353 91 56 97 77