Despite a name that belongs on a marquee, the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness does not enjoy the stateside profile of Brian Friel, his elder, or Conor McPherson, his junior. That's because Friel (a constant presence in the Chicago theater) writes about the age-old loyalties and divisions that permeate the soul of the Emerald Isle, while the powerfully contemporary McPherson (whose work is currently up at the Goodman Theatre) chronicles the new European realities of the so-called Celtic Tiger.
But as you'll appreciate if you go and see the quite decent first Chicago production of "Dolly West's Kitchen" at the TimeLine Theatre, the shrewd and passionate McGuinness writes compassionate, transitional plays about people oscillating around crumbling borders.
This drama, set in McGuinness' native County Donegal in 1943, features many of the traditionalist tropes of Irish drama — the Chekhovian sisters, the booze, the butcher's block table, the arrival of outsiders, the desire for escape even as nationalist loyalties simmer on the kitchen stove. But the war threw a wrench into the traditional cast of heroes and villains. And McGuinness' play, a big hit for the Abbey Theatre of Dublin in 1999, shows us a group of characters for whom the new world order is about to change everything.
It's quite a stew. Dramatis personae include a gay Irishman who falls in love with an American GI; a sister whose love for an Englishman means deep sacrifices; a woman who chooses a decent man she doesn't love; and an elderly matriarch who sees the ironies of this changing world better than anyone, and who tries to her death to arm the young people for a scrambled multinational future.
There are times when Dolly West's kitchen doesn't feel large enough to hold so many fraught romances and throbbing passions. And I wouldn't claim that the TimeLine cast, under the direction of Kimberly Senior, fully drives home every beat of the myriad emotional crises at the core of this rich play, especially the sexual ones. On opening night, Kathleen Ruhl (who plays matriarch Rima West) wasn't yet fully comfortable with the text. And, overall, the climax isn't yet as wrenching as McGuinness surely intended.
But this remains a rewarding show produced with integrity in an aptly intimate theater. TimeLine's production values have increased exponentially in recent months, and Brian Sydney Bembridge's set beautifully evokes the milieu of a rural enclave, just 14 miles from the newly established Northern Ireland, where troops amass.
Senior is a gifted painter of stage pictures. And her non-Equity cast is mostly quite strong. A key trio — Cliff Chamberlain, Sara Hoyer and (as Dolly) Kat McDonnell — came directly from the House Theatre of Chicago's "The Sparrow" and, although a little young for some of these roles, they bring a wide-open emotional sensibility. McDonnell is especially good. But the best work of the night comes from Niall McGinty, as a wound-tight but laudably direct young Irishman who suddenly comes to see that change can mean possibility more than fear.