There is nothing epic about "Sive," John B. Keane's tragic family drama set in a small, rude farmhouse. This is a story of gritty survival, where poverty pushes people to make desperate choices with unconscionable results. There are parts that feel like a slap in the face, and others that are a punt in the gut.
Thankfully, there also are frequent moments of dark humor, the kind that is particularly Irish and especially enjoyable. And the excellent cast in Irish Classical Theatre Company's production of the show relishes those moments, savoring Keane's detail-rich language as they spit it across the stage at one another. It is pure melodrama, giving the struggles of the poor the kind of intimate familial complications bestowed on the rich in shows like "Downton Abbey."
The play is famous for being rejected by Dublin's Abbey Theatre when it was first submitted 60 years ago, before it won a national amateur theater writing contest. Critics at the time denounced its blending of pagan curses and what was viewed as Christian blasphemy, but according to ICTC it is now one of the most produced plays in all of Ireland.
It is the story of an illegitimate orphan named Sive (Amherst High senior Kiana Duggan-Haas), who is raised by her uncle, Mike Glavin, and his wife, Mena, in the house they share with her grandmother. It is not a comfortable existence – their water comes out of a bucket, and the only warmth in the house, physical or emotional, comes from a peat-fueled fire.
Their poverty weighs heaviest on Mena, a desperately unhappy woman who is determined to blame others for her rough lot in life. Played with ferocious bite by Aleks Malejs, Mena barks and snaps at her mother-in-law, Nanna, over her affection for smoking and for Sive. In return, Nanna (Josephine Hogan at her crone-like best) can't resist reminding Mena she has no children of her own, so what good is she anyway?
That provides all the incentive Mena needs when the matchmaker Thomasheen (Ray Boucher) arrives to propose a deal: He will give the family 200 pounds in exchange for handing Sive over to marry an elderly but rich local farmer – a man old enough to be Sive's granddad. In a manse like "Downton's," this might be viewed as a propitious marriage to a man of means; in the rough landscape of rural Ireland, it smacks of human trafficking.
Boucher is fearless as the greedy advocate for the match, eloquently pointing out the advantages of the "arrangement," even for Sive, who would be lady of a house with "paper on every wall and a chamber pot under every bed."
"She'll live like a queen," he proclaims.
But Sive loves a local boy, Liam Scuab (earnestly portrayed by Niagara U grad Peter S. Raymond), and they hope to someday marry. Their cause gets unexpected support from a pair of traveling tinkers – played by Gerry Maher and Johnny Garden – who help plot an escape for Sive before the wedding.
Every time Maher and Barden appear as the ragged travelers, the situation in the cottage becomes a little less fraught and a little more dynamic. Maher, a Buffalo stage veteran, and Barden, in his first professional show, play delightfully well together. While the elder tinker prophesizes of the dark fates awaiting those who would sell a child, the younger thumps on a bodhran and turns the curses into such wicked lyrics as "May the snails devour his corpse and the rain do harm worse / May the devil sweep the hairy creature soon!"
David Lundy, fresh from appearing as the trainer in Irish Classical's "Golden Boy," is back as Sean Dota, the lecherous farmer who has his eye on Sive. Doddering and eager, this Dota is seemingly unaware that the object of his lust would have any feelings herself about the transaction.
Caught in the middle is Mike Glavin (Patrick Moltane), who laments on how impossible it is to be a good son and good husband in the same house, not to mention trying to do the right thing for his niece. Tragically, despite his moral struggles, he can't escape the idea that "Money is the best friend a man ever had," and the die is cast.
The action all takes place in the kitchen of the Glavin home, on an intricate set designed for full freedom of action by Brian Cavanagh. Wardrobe mistress Vivian del Bello and costume designer Bethany Kasperek get credit for the cast's well-worn and neatly patched outfits, which added to the authenticity that director Vincent O'Neill drew out of his performers.
Strong production of one of Ireland's most popular plays, a rural tragedy by John B. Keane powered by inescapable poverty, lust and class suffering. Presented by Irish Classical Theare Company in the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St., through Nov. 25. For tickets, go to irishclassical.com. There are post-show talk-backs with the cast on Thursdays and free Guinness for ticket-holders in the lounge after Friday shows.