In ‘The Naturalists,’ a Farm and a Family Evolve

Posted September 14, 2018 4:17 p.m. EDT

There are three meals in “The Naturalists,” Jaki McCarrick’s new play at Walkerspace: first TV dinners, then an al fresco spread of pasta and salad, and finally slices of bread squashed together in a sad attempt at sandwiches. There’s also tea and biscuits and enough beer to float the stage.

You’ll clock that food and drink because “The Naturalists” is a play that takes its time, in ways that are more and less successful. It’s also a play about time and about how change can happen very slowly and then very quickly.

When we first meet Francis (John Keating) and Billy (Tim Ruddy), they’re adult brothers atrophying on a farm in rural Ireland. They have big dreams about repairing the house and the store their parents once ran, but instead they spend their days caring for cattle and their nights lazing in front of the television (Billy) or off in a reverie (Francis) in the mobile home they’ve shared for 18 years. (The deft, constricted set is by Chika Shimizu.)

Adolescent traumas have stunted them both. Francis, an amateur naturalist, spent a dozen years in prison for participating in an Irish Republican Army attack that killed 18 British soldiers. Billy, a would-be veterinarian, dropped out to care for their no-good mother.

They want to evolve, but they don’t know how. At least until Josie (Sarah Street) arrives.

For reasons that are less than clear, Francis hires Josie, a dancer and a former addict, to cook and clean for them. She zooms in on a motor scooter and immediately puts the mobile home in order — fresh flowers, fresh ideas. Francis warms to her right away, Billy more gradually. Soon the brothers are living better, eating better, putting in work on the house. Josie, half in love with both of them, is thriving, too.

That’s when the slowness really becomes excruciating. It’s not because — or not only because — McCarrick doubles down on her themes and writes too many conversations that do the same work. It’s because this is theater, and we know this idyll can’t last. The anticipation of the crisis is agonizing. It appears in the bulky beer-swilling form of John-Joe (Michael Mellamphy), Francis’ old IRA compatriot. The pace quickens and peace shatters.

Directed with maybe too much sensitivity by Colleen Clinton and Lily Dorment for the Pond Theater Company, “The Naturalists” is staged with impeccable, well, naturalism — all that food, all those beers, the mumbling and the pauses. In some scenes, this can make McCarrick’s style, which owes a debt to Chekhov and O’Casey and is not exactly fleet, positively trudge.

But the play and its desultory rhythms are a gift to its actors, many of whom have been doing sterling work, particularly at the Irish Repertory Theater, for years. The elfin Keating, the saturnine Ruddy and the radiant Street all move persuasively between fragility and strength. (Though Mellamphy is also a fine actor, his character is much feebler and front-to-back repugnant.)

The way each of them sustains the others is a thing as beautiful as any of Francis’ redwoods or violets. A play that gives them the space and the hours to do their work is time well spent.


“The Naturalists”

Through Sept. 23 at Walkerspace, Manhattan; 212-279-4200, thepondtheatre.org.

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.