A review of “Into the West,” a charming Irish tragicomedy about a widower, his two kids and a magic horse at Seattle Children’s Theatre.
To fully appreciate “Into the West,” a charming tragicomedy for kids at Seattle Children’s Theatre, it helps to have some familiarity with Irish literature — or popular Irish culture, such as “Horse Outside,” the hilariously crude pop-song satire from Limerick City performance-art duo Rubberbandits.
Both the play and the song (which has 15.4 million views on YouTube) condense a few common themes into an improbable loveliness: Irish poverty, finding magic in the midst of that poverty, and the spark of rebellion.
The Rubberbandits’ 2010 song is about a poor man at a wedding, flirting with a bridesmaid. Her other suitors have offered to drive her away from the church in their cars (a Mitsubishi, a Subaru, a Honda Civic), but the singer boasts that he can best the other three guys: He came to the wedding on a horse that “jumps like Tír na nÓg.”
‘Into the West’
Through March 19, Seattle Children’s Theatre, 201 Thomas St., Seattle; $22-$40 (206-441-3322 or sct.org).
And Tír na nÓg, a mythical Irish horse that can jump between this world and “the Otherworld,” is the star of “Into the West.”
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The production begins with its three actors (the uniformly excellent Charles Leggett, Anastasia Higham and Conner Neddersen, all playing multiple roles) mimicking the “whoosh” of waves crashing against the western Irish coast. Soon Leggett, playing a widower with a young son (Neddersen) and daughter (Higham), is being handcuffed and questioned because his kids have stolen a horse and high-tailed it out of Dublin.
That horse is Tír na nÓg, who may or may not be some visitation from the kids’ dead mother — but the police try to confiscate it. The children sneak into an animal auction to get it back, prompting the arrest of their heartsick “Pa,” who lives in a tenement tower and always has a little bottle of whiskey nearby. The cops want to know if he’d made them take the horse hostage for an “illegal organization.” (The IRA is never mentioned, but it’s implied.)
“Into the West” distills grief and desperation into a bittersweet concoction.
“What did she look like?” the daughter, Ally (Higham), asks about her dead mother at the top of the play. “Close your eyes,” Pa (Leggett) says both sweetly and gruffly. “Can you see a beautiful woman?” Ally nods. “That’s what she looked like.”
The line gets a laugh because of Leggett’s well-timed and dismissive delivery — but for the grown-ups in the audience, it’s a piercingly sad joke. Pa used to be an itinerant, one of Ireland’s “Traveling People” (sometimes referred to disparagingly as “tinkers” or “gypsies”), but now he’s stuck in a Dublin housing project with two kids and a too-keen memory of his wife he wishes he could drink away.
When Tír na nÓg shows up — sometimes played by a stomping and whinnying Leggett, or an abstract, sculptural contraption made of steel beams, courtesy of set designer Carol Wolfe Clay — it inspires the kids to become vagabonds. They sneak it up an elevator, pretend to be sick while begging on the street for hay money, and lead the cops on a wild chase across Ireland, riding westward to the sea.
The actors, accompanied by accordionist and guitar-player Eric Bradler, caper across Clay’s multitiered set, performing a huge range of roles: the family, the horse, a police dog, a police helicopter and, in one brief but memorably funny bit, Leggett is a deadpan thorn bush that snares the hungry kids’ collars and hair while they look for berries.
Greg Banks wrote “Into the West” for the British Travelling Light Theatre Company, and SCT first produced it in 2002. At the time, then-artistic director Linda Hartzell wrote: “Everybody from around the world who has seen ‘Into the West’ feels that it is one of the strongest pieces to come out of England in a very long time.”
Apparently, it still is: On the night I attended, the production ended with the kids mesmerized and several adults sniffling and reaching for their handkerchiefs to hastily dab their eyes before the lights came up.
And, like the Rubberbandits’ song (and so many other Irish stories), the play concludes with a note of unlikely hope. You might be poor, you might be hungry, you might be déclassé — but nobody can take away your ability to be bold.