Rise of the Downtrodden

'Stones in His Pockets' turns discontent, exploitation into a funny, positive experience

Ireland is to the English as the South is to the rest of us Americans: a place haunted by oppression and violence, a region that's economically and culturally backward (conveniently ignoring formidable literary tradition). The people speak with odd accents, drink too much and suffer from inbreeding; whole towns consist of second and third cousins.

A few contemporary playwrights like Martin McDonagh are beginning to give us a different, if still rather unsavory, view of Ireland, but otherwise, most Irishmen you see on stage are either inebriated, unemployed or somehow maladjusted.

This is true even in Marie Jones' Stones in His Pockets, now on stage at Beowulf Alley, but there's an important twist in this comedy: The downtrodden main characters resolve to parlay their town's sorry state into something positive. If lemons grew in Ireland, these men would be awash in lemonade.

Stones in His Pockets involves 15 characters, all played by only two actors--here, Jonathan Northover and Matthew Copley. The two central figures are Charlie and Jake, fellows "in transition" who are delighted to be hired as extras, at 40 pounds a day, for a film being shot locally by a Hollywood studio, complete with big American stars. All Charlie and Jake and the other villagers have to do is sit around most of the day, eat free food and then, when the cameras finally roll, clump together and look downtrodden.

Charlie, although his life has recently gone to hell, sees this as a splendid opportunity to enter the film industry in a big way. He has written a script, of course, which he hopes to put into the hands of someone who will immediately give him the resources to produce his movie. Jake is more pessimistic about this and most other things, yet even he gets swept up in the glamour when he inadvertently catches the eye of the film's female lead.

Swirling around Charlie and Jake are the expected colorful locals, including an old geezer who claims to be "the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man," and the expected self-absorbed Hollywood imports. It's fine fodder for some very funny vignettes, but things take an unexpected turn just before intermission, when one of the villagers commits suicide by shuffling into the water, weighted down by the stones in his pockets of the play's title.

The second half of the story follows the conflict between the villagers, who need time off to attend the funeral (the dead man was, after all, related to most of them), and the filmmakers, who are under a schedule and budget crunch and have to wrap up shooting on the day of the interment. Of course, the Hollywood denizens just can't comprehend that their own presence, and the flaunting of their unattainable glamour, may have nudged the young Irishman to suicide.

Outraged, Charlie and Jake resolve to make their own movie about the incident--not the sort of Hollywood tripe being shot on their land wherein sexy, rich landowners magnanimously make life better for the people, but a realistic project showing what life in County Kerry is truly like. Of course, the Hollywood folks, when they take Charlie seriously at all, advise him to tack on an uplifting Hollywood ending. Ironically, what's uplifting about Stones in His Pockets is Charlie and Jake's determination not to be phony and positive; they intend to take back their history and make sure that the story that follows is of their own making.

OK, I've basically told you the entire main plot of the play, and if I've ruined any surprises, I apologize. But the story requires a fuller-than-usual recounting if you're going to understand Jones' tottery chalk-line walk between the funny and the serious. Hollywood exploits the quaint Irish; the two Irishmen ultimately seek success by exploiting their village's real little tragedies; Jones exploits it all in a manner that somehow avoids cynicism. She manages to write both a realistic ending and a Hollywood ending, all in the same scene.

Director Susan Arnold doesn't slight the play's comedic elements, but she does seem more interested in the serious implications of the second half; she and the actors downplay the obvious satire a bit--the performances would surely have been more over the top at some other local theaters--and end up treating Charlie and Jake with real integrity. So there's a lower bellylaugh count during the performance, but, thanks to this restraint, the play leaves a longer aftertaste.

Northover and Copley perform heroically, changing characters as quickly as they may swerve to left or right as they stride across the stage. And each character is quite distinct; once every figure has been introduced, you know instantly which character has now taken over an actor's body. Northover's accents are more diverse and precise than Copley's, but otherwise, the men are well-matched as smart performers. They are nicely supported by Jon Marbry's sound design and Bill Dell's lighting.

Perhaps only an Irishman could turn this two-hour survey of discontent, exploitation and suicide into a funny and positive experience. Apparently in archaic Ireland, even if you're shambling into the ocean, when you have stones in your pockets, at least your pockets are full.