THIS LIME TREE BOWER by Conor McPherson, directed by Sarah Dodd (Cart/Horse Theatre). At Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley). Runs to December 22, Monday-Saturday 8 pm. $25, Monday $10. 416-368-3110. See listing. Rating: NNN
Irish playwright Conor McPherson knows how to get under the skin of his characters, using seemingly ordinary details of their lives to provide often sad insights that they themselves often don't recognize.
In his early play This Lime Tree Bower, three Dublin men confronting situations they think they can control but actually can't. Teenage Joe (Anthony MacMahon) is fascinated by bad-boy Damien, a new guy at his school; at this point in his life, hero worship (and maybe a touch of sexual attraction?) and wanking off are central concerns.
His elder brother, Frank (Matthew Gorman), works in their father's chip shop; determined to pull his father out of the financial hole he's in, Frank decides to rob the bookie to whom his father's indebted.
Finally there's Ray (Gray Powell), a college teacher who's dating the brothers' sister Carmel; with a history of bedding his students, Ray's not the most trustworthy of men. He accidentally becomes central to Frank's robbery plan, leading to a climax that involves all three characters.
A series of overlapping monologues let us in on the narrative from different points of view. Only at one crucial point does one character acknowledge another; the moment offers a revelation to the onstage listener as well as to the audience.
Director Sarah Dodd's production provides an appropriately spools development at a leisurely pace. As the stories unfold, the accumulating details add to each carefully drawn portrait.
MacMahon takes a while to convey a strong sense of Joe, though his pigeon-toed, nervous posture - in Lindsay Anne Black's set, all three sit in chairs facing the audience, as if in separate worlds - communicates something of the teen's insecurity. By mid-point in the show, the actor settles comfortably into Joe's escapades with Damien and his brother and provides, at the end, a suggestion of growing up.
Frank, in some ways the most normal of the men, lacks initiative and drive in his day-to-day existence; ironically, he's the one who takes the most unexpected means to change his life. Gorman captures and capitalizes on that ordinary quality, enjoying his narration as if it were a convivial chat in a pub.
It's Powell's loquacious Ray, with an anxious smile occasionally sliding across his face, who provides theatrical magic. A charming scoundrel, he thinks nothing of shagging and abandoning women, intimidating colleagues and one-upping a visiting prof.
Self-impressed and yet aware of his flaws, Ray is the quintessential heel, yet we can't wait to hear what Powell has to say next. He plays the audience in a way the other two actors don't, waiting to hear how a comment lands, sometimes almost inviting a verbal response - which says as much about Ray's character as Powell's performance.