Long before John Millington Synge's "Playboy of the Western World" became a classic, it was somewhat controversial. When it debuted nearly a century ago, audiences in Dublin went into the streets and rioted over what they considered an insult to their lifestyle.
Guest director John Going, who is doing his 11th play at PTC in as many years, doesn't anticipate the same reaction when Synge's comedy opens Wednesday for a 2 1/2-week run in the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre. "The early controversy was a big event in theater history," Going said while in Salt Lake City for rehearsals.
Before "Playboy" opened in 1907, the Irish peasantry had most often been presented in a sentimentalized light. "But this play presents them in a very real way, with the warts on their complexion," said Going. "The Dublin audience was deeply offended by it. They were also outraged by one line in the play about women wearing 'shifts' (an undergarment). They found it extremely objectionable, but today we'd think, 'What is that?' Our sensibilities have changed. It's hard to look at the play now and think what all the fuss was about." (Brigham Young University staged "Playboy" several years ago without any Utah County riots.)
These days, "Playboy of the Western World" is considered a masterpiece of poetic Irish drama. It follows the rise and fall of Christy Mahon, a stranger who wanders into a pub in a remote Irish village and enthralls the patrons with a tall tale about how he has murdered his father. As his fantastic yarn becomes more and more embellished, the locals react in unexpected ways.
"One of our challenges," said Going, "is the Irish brogue. We're working very hard at getting the correct accent, but also making it accessible."
Tommy Schrider, a newcomer to Pioneer Theatre Company, has the central role of Christy. The New Jersey native grew up in Los Angeles but has worked extensively in the New York area, including a recent performance in "Pigtown" at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
"This is a phenomenal play when it gets done right," said Schrider before heading off to rehearsal. "It's one of those seminal Irish plays that gave birth to a lot of the Irish plays we see now. When you read 'The Cripple of Inishmaan,' you see all the parallels."
Patricia Dalen plays the pub owner's daughter, feisty, red-haired Pegeen. Going directed Dalen in a recent production of "A Flea in Her Ear." The Widow Quinn — another Irish spitfire — is played by Giulia Pagano, who was in PTC's 1998 production of "Dancing at Lughnasa," another Irish comedy directed by Going.
"The wonderful, attractive thing about this is the Irish society you see from this era," said Going. "They're very warm-hearted, but with a lot of gumption and feistiness. Pegeen is sharp-spoken, but gorgeous. That's something you often see in Irish plays — the leading lady tends to be beautiful, but sharp-tongued."
One of the comedy's main characters — Pegeen's father — is played by longtime local favorite Max Robinson. "He has such great comedic abilities, and he's also become a good friend over the years," said Going, adding that Robinson "has a wonderful drunk scene." Two others well-known to PTC fans are Robert Peterson and Richard Mathews, playing a couple of townsmen.
Tommy Schrider has more than a wee bit of Irish blood in his family. "My mother's mother came here from Ireland," Schrider said. "She's listed on the immigrant wall at Ellis Island. And on my father's side, his mother's parents came here from Ireland as well."
Commenting on the character he plays in "Playboy of the Western World," Schrider said, "Christy is this sort of scraggly, lonesome traveler who's been walking for days. He enters this small bar in rural Ireland and the people are immediately fascinated by him. It's a big change in the turn of events from their mundane lives.
"He's done some crime, they learn, and when Pegeen threatens him with a broom, he admits to killing his father, which endows him with these romantic, heroic qualities. It's the first time in his life that he's been treated with any sort of dignity and respect. In turn, he starts to buy into that. He keeps telling the story, but it gets more and more extravagant. All the time, the women are nuts about him."
Schrider added, "It's an incredibly funny play. I'm having a great time with this. For a young actor, this is one of the dream roles. I've always wanted to play it, simply because Christy's journey encompasses so many different qualities. You get to exercise a lot of different muscles as an actor — and the text is so poetic. People don't write with this kind of language anymore. Today, they're more into minimalism."
If you go . . .
What: "Playboy of the Western World"
Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East
When: March 26-April 12
7:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays
8 p.m. Fridays
2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays
How much: $19-$39
Web site: www.ptc.utah.edu
Also: Free post-matinee discussion April 5. Performances on March 31 and April 7 are interpreted for the hearing-impaired.