Chief New York Theatre Critic
Outer Critics Circle / Drama Desk Voting Member
Currently playing at Walkerspace, The Pond Theatre Company’s “The Naturalists” is a compelling look at how one’s “secret” past can suddenly and unexpectedly encroach on the present and delay one’s progress into the future. Brothers Francis Sloane (a thoughtful and tender John Keating) and Billy Sloane (a defiant and burdened Tim Ruddy) enjoy an uneventful present in their mobile home in a rural hamlet of County Monaghan, Ireland in 2010. Their lives might not be described as idyllic; however, they get along most of the time, and the income from their cattle farm seems to provide a comfortable albeit spartan existence.
Billy runs the farm while Francis teaches his students that the First Nation peoples “had it right . . . we are keepers of the earth.” They hope to save enough money to return to the family house which they had to abandon with their mother Martha years ago. Francis convinces Billy the pair need someone to help around the mobile home and he interviews Josie Larmer (a repentant and loyal Sarah Street) for the position and she agrees to fill it – even “stay over” if necessary. Playwright Jaki McCarrick unfolds this exposition with care, allowing the actors to portray their characters and their layered conflicts with rich authenticity.
Josie, Francis, and Billy have more than their share of “skeletons” in their collective closets: addiction, incest, imprisonment, bomb-making – among other things – clutter their past lives and the trio seems to have come to terms with most of that detritus successfully. Francis observes positive changes in Billy. “I know. But it’s all, I don’t know, comin’ to a head now or somethin’. Like he’s becomin’ a man at last and his old skin won’t fit him no more.” This forward movement for the “new family” is impeded after Billy opens a letter to Francis from his acquaintance from 1979 Narrow Water days John-Joe Doherty (a dastardly and pernicious Michael Mellamphy).
John-Joe is an “old ghost” from the past – the past Billy knows is “catching up” with him and Friancis and threatening the redemption they have welcomed since moving to the mobile home and welcoming Josie into their “family.” It is difficult to comment on John-Joe’s visit in Act II without issuing a spoiler alert. Jaki McCarrick has written a dense script with layers of rich and enduring questions about humankind’s ability to navigate the present when the past continues to attempt to negotiate itself back into that present. The shadows from the past are often insidious and even life-threatening. Under the direction of Colleen Clinton and Lily Dorment, the ensemble cast of “The Naturalists” work brilliantly together to explore these dynamic characters whose engaging conflicts could not be more relevant in the present.
Chika Shimizu’s set design, Caitlin Smith Rapoport’s lighting design along with Christopher Ross-Ewart’s sound design clearly define the various settings of “The Naturalists.” If directors Colleen Clinton and Lily Dorment could modify the convention of the scene changes, the action of the play would move more quickly without sacrificing any dramatic substance.
The trio – Francis, Billy, and Josie – are naturalists; in addition, they embrace the tenants of naturalism which affirm that it is natural laws that govern the structure and behavior of the universe. Perhaps Francis summarizes it best. “Morals is it? Morals are nothin’ but the customs of the people around ya and conforming to those customs. If we were all vegetarian it would be immoral to eat meat.” Amen.
The cast for “The Naturalists” includes John Keating as Francis Xavier Sloane, Tim Ruddy as Billy Sloane, Sarah Street as Josie Larmer, and Michael Mellamphy as John-Joe Doherty.
The creative team for “The Naturalists includes” Chika Shimizu (scenic design), Grier Coleman (costume design), Caitlin Smith Rapoport (lighting design), Christopher Ross-Ewart (sound design), Carrie Mossman (prop design), Garrett Markgraf (production stage manager), Josiah Parsons (production manager) and Madeleine Goldsmith (producer).
Performances of “The Naturalists” take place through Sunday September 23 at Walkerspace, located at 46 Walker Street in Manhattan. Tickets, priced at $45.00 general admission, can be purchased by visiting thepondtheatre.org or by calling 212-279-4200. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes plus one intermission.
Photo: John Keating, Sarah Street, Tim Ruddy in “The Naturalists.” Credit: Richard Termine.