Review: DEIRDRE OF THE SORROWS at City Lit Theater

Review: DEIRDRE OF THE SORROWS at City Lit Theater

Pictured: Natalie Joyce. Photo by Steve Graue.

By Conor McShane

John Millington Synge’s DEIRDRE OF THE SORROWS is based on one of Ireland’s most famous legends, but its tale of tragic young love seems to exist somewhere in every culture. Mounted by the venerable City Lit Theater company for the first time on a Chicago stage in over a hundred years, it tells a timeless story that nonetheless can’t help but show its age.

The story takes place in ancient Ireland, then a collection of independent kingdoms, before the wide-sweeping influence of Catholicism overtook the Pagan beliefs of the age. Deirdre (Natalie Joyce), our heroine, has been raised since birth by a nurse named Lavarcham (Morgan McCabe) with the intent of being wed to Conchubor, the King of Ulster (Tim Kidwell) when she becomes of age. But Dierdre’s grown into a spirited young woman, and has no desire to marry the aging king. Instead, she absconds with her lover, Naisi (Alex Pappas), and his two brothers, Ainnle (Curtis Dunn) and Ardan (Mick LaRocca). After living seven peaceful years together in Alban (modern-day Scotland), the couple must decide whether or not to return to Ulster, when Conchubar’s right-hand man Fergus (Mark Pracht) comes calling bringing a message of peace. As you might imagine, it doesn’t go quite according to plan.

This is a challenging play as an audience member and, I’d imagine, as an actor, director, or dramaturg. Synge’s language is dense, written in an Irish vernacular that is somewhat foreign to our American ears. It may very well take a few minutes at the top of the show to settle into the rhythm of the dialogue and be able to glean its meaning (it did for me, at least). This isn’t really the fault of the production, which is very committed to the language and a sort of early Irish dialect (the dialect coaching by Cate Gillespie is terrific), but this is certainly a play that requires your full concentration. Though this, too, isn’t a bad thing; in this day and age, when our minds are more fractured than ever, it’s a refreshing challenge to have to listen closely.

The downside of this approach, as carefully researched as it clearly is, is that it keeps its audience at a distance. Despite the efforts of the uniformly strong cast, many of the particulars of the plot were, at least for me, hard to follow, and ultimately the fate of the young lovers isn’t as emotionally moving as it needs to be. Perhaps early audiences in Ireland, likely being familiar with the story going in, were able to fill in the blanks and add their own emotional coloring. As it exists in this production, to contemporary American audiences, it ends up feeling more like a heavily researched historical artifact than a deeply involving piece of theater.

There’s an interesting feminist undertone to the play that was likely quite controversial at the time. Deirdre refuses to accept the fate that her king has placed on her, instead choosing her own destiny, even as it may lead to her doom. Even her final act, tragic as it may be, can be viewed as an act of rebellion against a system that tries to control her life from the very beginning. I can’t help but wish, despite the play first being performed in 1910, that Synge had gone into this a bit further, but its presence gives the story some contemporary relevance. There’s also an interesting discussion of whether young love can stand the test of time, and whether happiness is fleeting or can be sustained past youth and into old age. Deirdre and Naisi debate whether to live out their lives in exile, happy together but cut off from the world, or return to a place that may put them in danger, thereby ending their love affair in the flower of youth. Ultimately, they decide to return to Ireland rather than risk growing old and disillusioned with one another. It’s a crucible that’s relatable to anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship, where the excitement of a young romance either burns out or evolves into something deeper. For most of us, the stakes aren’t quite as high as life and death, even if it feels that way sometimes.

Ultimately, the work that the company has put into realizing this play deserves to be commended, from the aforementioned dialect work to the meticulous dramaturgy visible in Kay Martinovich’s direction, Yeaji Kim’s set design, Mazi Jurgenson’s props, and Rachel Sypniewski’s costumes. The acting also deserves praise: in particular, Natalie Joyce brings strength and heart to the title character, Tim Kidwell plays the king with a mix of tenderness, frustration, and unsettling anger, and Morgan McCabe gives Lavarcham a welcome dose of wisdom, affection, and brashness (for my money, her performance is the play’s most moving and fully realized). But it doesn’t manage to pull you fully into its world and grab you by the heart. A lot of this comes down to Synge’s script, which doesn’t spend much time getting the audience invested in its central relationship, possibly assuming the audience would be bringing their investment with them. Perhaps it’s by design, but to my mind, a tragic love story needs a little more emotional connection.

DEIDRE OF THE SORROWS runs through October 15th. For more information visit

About author

Conor McShane

Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.