SAN DIEGO — If you're looking for a good, meaty discussion after the theater, take a couple of friends to see "Big Maggie" at the Marquis Public Theater.
This play by Irish writer John B. Keane, directed by Minerva Marquis, is guaranteed to raise issues--hotly debated issues, such as whether Maggie (a character devised by a man) is "liberated" or monstrously cold, hard and nasty.
One thing that can't be argued: Life in Limerick County, Ireland, two decades ago was indeed cold, hard and nasty--for women especially.
The play opens in a graveyard. Maggie Polpin's husband is being buried, the mourners heard wailing offstage, but Maggie is unmoved. She has been wife in name only, stuck in a life of raising children, running a farm and a dry-goods store, looking the other way while her husband carried on his hard-drinking, womanizing life.
Three of her four children are in their early 20s and eager to get on with their own lives. They are openly hostile to their mother as they argue over their inheritance, discovering, to their complete dismay, that Maggie has managed to put herself in full legal control of the family's assets. This is a remarkable feat for an Irish widow with grown sons.
But Maggie's independence, no matter how severely motivated, is not inspiring. As played by Ann Richardson, Keane's character is one tough woman, indeed. She has become, not flesh and blood, but a cruel icon who divests herself of everyone--children, suitors, friends.
Keane wants us to believe she loves these people, and wants the best for them no matter how much they are hurt by her methods. A thorough display of these techniques takes up the remainder of Keane's drama, ending on a note that some will find quite sour.
Richardson displays very little of the maternal softness one hopes to see behind Maggie's steely exterior. She seems instead to delight in the viciousness of Maggie's actions. When she cruelly rejects a suitor, Richardson shows no hint of feeling, twisting her face into a derisive laugh that obliterates any hidden compassion. She gives us nothing but ice.
It seems much more likely that Keane intended actresses to read between Maggie's lines. But Richardson's one-dimensional interpretation is baffling, and ultimately turns the mind against Maggie.
It is a disturbing production. Anger, sympathy and indignation compete with one another as playgoers leave the theater. Whether Keane hoped for this reaction, or whether his work is being ill-served, may be part of the after-play debate.
Norbert Ehrenfreund supplies relief with his delightful portrayal of Mr. Byrne, a busybody monument sculptor, genuine in all the ways Maggie is shallow. James Johnson and Susan Simmons give the best performances among Maggie's disenchanted offspring.
Their fine work, well-supported by Sheldon Gero, Pat Milkie, Ellery Brown, Suzan Bennett, Sam Gooch and Anne Selcoe, is what makes the play difficult to dismiss. These people are taking "Big Maggie" seriously enough to mount it respectably.
Phil Burns three-in-one set design stretches the imagination, while Brown's lighting design scatters unwanted exposure across parlor and shop during the outdoor scene. Lilting Irish music between scenes more successfully evokes the proper time and place, as do the uncredited costumes.
Whether you love or hate Maggie, there is much here to consider.
"Big Maggie" has been held over for two more weeks.
"BIG MAGGIE" By John B. Keane. Directed by Minerva Marquis. Set design by Phil Burns. Lighting and sound design by Ellery Brown. Technical direction by Sam Gooch. With Sheldon Gero, Pat Milkie, Ann Richardson, Susan Simmons, Norbert Ehrenfreund, Ellery Brown, James Johnson, Suzan Bennett, Sam Gooch, Anne Selcoe. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. through June 28 at the Marquis Public Theater, 3717 India St., San Diego.