The Well of the Saints
John Millington Synge was an influential figure in the history of Irish theatre, best-known for his The Playboy of the Western World. The Celtic Arts Center Theatre Company is readying Synge's far more obscure The Well of the Saints to open April 29. (At presstime the production's opening had been delayed until next week.) Director Robyn Heller began the rehearsal process by sharing a book about Irish drama, which listed the play as one of the best-structured of the genre. Still, according to one of the production's lead actors, Jacque Lynn Colton, it's a work "nobody knows unless they're really serious students of Irish theatre." Somehow that makes the play a wonderfully unspoiled choice for Celtic Arts to present as it enters its 20th year in existence, and its newly re-energized company is striving fiercely to re-examine the lofty goals originally inspiring its inception: "To do Celtic stories by Celtic writers," according to the play's producer and Celtic Arts' Theatre Director Steve Gunning.
Heller explains her excitement directing this project: "Besides having such a rich text, it's also interesting because it's a comedy. Not a happy comedy, you understand; an Irish comedy. I'm always drawn to comedy with a dark side. It's better when, along with intellectual stimulation, you get a few good laughs."
Colton and Michael Earl Reid play a blind homeless couple inhabiting a dusty rural crossroads, where they beg for a living as they shuck native reeds called "rushes" to glean from them a kind of tallow for lighting. "We hear a saint is seeking to cure us with holy water from the Well of the Four Beauties," explains Colton of the somewhat Faustian theme. "We think everything will be perfect, see. We'll be the handsomest and most beautiful people in the Western world. But we're not, well, your great beauties, shall we say? And we immediately want things we can't have. Instead of sight making our lives happy, we become bitterly estranged, alone, and lonely."
It's also "one of the best roles of my lifetime," added the veteran character actor. "It's like [Beckett's] Happy Days, like the woman's Hamlet. It's so long since I've had a challenge like this. I get to go through the whole range of emotions. And there are incredibly eloquent descriptions of us hearing the spring coming, that sort of thing. Before Synge and [his friend and mentor W. B.] Yeats, the Irish had been depicted as such clowns. With their writing, they were trying to come closer to the truth, to search for honesty. How these people lived their lives, their simplicity, is what we're exploring. Thankfully Robyn has such good ideas and taste."
Heller and her actors have been focusing on the physicality of playing blind. Says the director, who mined the possibilities by blindfolding Colton and Reid at rehearsals, "When we shut off the visual element, it was amazing how their focus changed." According to Colton, "We immediately realized how damnably hard it is without sight. We even had to consider how Mike and I would relate to each other. The grunts and oohs and aahs of our longtime relationship had to become that much more specific. And we had to learn to turn our ears to one another, not our faces."
Presenting The Well of the Saints as part of the Center's reaffirmed artistic direction is particularly appropriate, believes Colton, because of the "sheer poetry" of Synge's dialogue. "It's a perfect match, because these people are so committed to what they do. One of the best things for me is that Celtic Arts is so much more than just a theatre group. They have these great social evenings, with wonderful Irish musicians playing, where the members and anyone else who wants to come is welcome to drop in. Even the first beer is free. See, they aren't people off to produce another L.A. showcase. Their goal is to spread knowledge of the Irish culture."
Heller concludes: "Synge met Yeats when he was traveling abroad in his 20s, and the great Irish poet encouraged him to come back to Ireland, to travel the countryside and soak in the language of the people. From then on, Synge wrote in the style of language he heard spoken and had remembered himself from his early childhood. His gifts as a playwright came to him through the Irish people. He wrote this play almost like a fable. You assume there'll be a moral at the end, but I think it's far more complex than that. Most people, it seems from my research, stage it more broadly than I am. I hope we're finding more of the substance here, the deeper meanings."
—Travis Michael Holder
"The Well of the Saints" will be presented by An Claidheamh Soluis/The Celtic Arts Center Company at the Celtic Arts Center, 4843 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Studio City. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. Sun. 2 p.m. Apr. 29-June 5. $12-15. (818) 760-8322.