There are a lot of secrets being kept by the characters in Jaki McCarrick’s play The Naturalists. When they finally spill out in a glut, it can stretch credulity. This new play set in contemporary Ireland offers some moments of beautifully written prose and a carefully calibrated central performance. However, the production suffers from too much muted naturalism in the direction at the expense of legibility.
While it might be 2010, adult brothers Francis (John Keating) and Billy (Tim Ruddy) live in a rural world frozen somewhere in the past. For 18 years, they’ve been staying “temporarily” in a mobile home down the hill from their crumbling stone homestead. Abandoned by their domineering mother, and not at all happy to still be living on top of each other after all these years in this small place, the plan has long been to fix up the house and move back up there. But the distance between down the hill and up is insurmountable for these men who are emotionally and spiritually stuck.
The catalyst for their change is a housekeeper named Josie (Sarah Street): a modern dancer who has moved back home to Ireland after time abroad and who’s willing to clean up after these two men. She is drawn to Francis and his love of nature. She finds value in the taciturn and grumpy Billy.
While some of the secrets of the characters are known to the audience, others must eventually be drawn out. There are layers of lies and hidden bits of the past which stand in the way of these men moving ahead. It’s not just one issue but in fact a litany of them which is where the play begins to strain.
The road there can be frustrating too. There are a lot of pregnant moments in the production where two characters give each other long, tense looks. But you’re left to wonder the meaning behind them. While sprinkling this kind of mysterious unknown throughout plays is expected, here, it happens too often. Whether it’s sexual tension, family tension, or something else it helps to have some guideposts so that our interest is piqued and the aggregation of these issues grows in meaning. Here it’s all those things at once but poorly articulated. When the stories start to come out near the end of Act Two, it feels too late.
Josie’s presence does break Billy and Francis of their patterns and frees them to start making changes. But I wish Josie had been more of her own character rather than a device to shake things up. Even when she’s confronted with a major surprise late in the first Act she rolls with it quite easily. But we don’t know enough about her to understand why this is no big deal to her. Street doesn’t give us much variation to work with to fill in the emotional gaps.
Meanwhile, Ruddy’s Billy is all mumbles. While that may be an aspect of the character, it does stand in the way of interpreting his feelings throughout. We have little reason to understand why anyone puts up with him.
Keating however offers a rich interpretation of Francis. Touching Josie shifts something in him which we can see. He finds a way to let his character turn on a dime–flashing anger, overwhelming pain, and a grief and loss over something that we know is there…but we don’t yet know what. The play handles that secret more deftly and Keating gives such a wonderfully shaded performance that we’re willing to hang on for him.
McCarrick puts all the poetry of the play into Francis. He’s bursting with knowledge about the natural world and has the love of teaching others this as well. Keating delivers Francis’s gentle curiosity about life with a wistful, longing. He’s the play’s MVP and it’s a role that showcases his talents. I could have watched him muse over the imaginary meadows for hours.
The set design captures the trapped in the past feeling with a faded plaid fabrics, wood paneling, and the classic JFK portrait above the door–everything is shades of green, mustard, and brown like we’re still in 1979. The production, directed by Colleen Clinton and Lily Dorment, relies heavily on music to lead us in and out of scenes and fill in some of the emotional content when things are opaque. But I wish all the performances had been able to set this tone overall. It’s an interesting setting, with a fascinating character at its core. But the understated execution of the production can leave us drifting far too frequently.