It was three years ago last December that the American Irish Repertory Ensemble suffered the unimaginable loss of its beloved co-founder, Susan Reilly, in a car accident that also left the theater’s artistic director, Tony Reilly, recovering from injuries that included a leg amputation. Although Tony began acting again, it was unclear if AIRE would survive the tragedy.

The theater is making its triumphant return to the Portland theater scene with a rendition of John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar” that is a heartfelt testament to Susan Reilly’s legacy.

Staged in the black box Studio Theater, the production uses a minimalist set, cleverly designed by Stacey Koloski, and smile-inducing sound effects by Chris Fitze. It’s not a fancy production, but what it lacks in glitz, it more than makes up with heart and humor.

AIRE has assembled a cast that is pure magic. Under the direction of Daniel Burson, the actors draw the audience into Shanley’s touchingly quirky tale of life on the farm in rural Ireland. The characters are instantly lovable in all their idiosyncratic glory, casting a spell that seems to make the black walls of the theater fade to green as the audience begins to see the neighboring farms through the eyes of the characters.

Tony Reilly fittingly plays Tony Reilly, a widower and owner of one of the farms. He lives with his son, Anthony, played by Joe Bearor, who is an unmarried man in his late 30s. Maureen Butler is Aoife Muldoon, who owns the neighboring farm, where she lives with her daughter, Rosemary, played by Janice Gardner.

Reilly and Butler are delightfully paired. The veteran actors play off each other with a natural ease, delivering strong performances that are punctuated by perfectly timed humor. Butler has a knack for delivering wry one-liners and setting up laughs that may not be realized until later, but are well worth the wait. Reilly stokes the comic flames between moments of genuinely moving emotion.

They are matched by Bearor and Gardner, who deliver performances that are both touching and thoroughly entertaining. There’s a fragile sweetness to Bearor’s Anthony, and Gardner is a spitfire that can dish out intensity and humor in equal parcels.

At the opening of the play, Aoife’s husband, Christopher, has recently died, and the four characters are getting together at the Reilly’s farm after the wake. Set in 2008, the scene is the first of three in the one-act play, with the subsequent scenes being set in 2009 and 2013. Each focuses on a monumental event in the characters’ lives, creating a longstanding history between Anthony and Rosemary, who have know each other since she was born.

Tony Reilly as Tony Reilly and Joe Bearor as his son, Anthony.

The story unfolds like a good book, engaging the audience with amusing twists while developing the characters. The play drops hints along the way, setting up little mysteries and questions, like what is Anthony’s big secret and why does his father think he will never marry? It’s safe to say that those who haven’t seen the play before won’t guess the big reveal, which is unconventional and loads of fun.

“Outside Mullingar” is sweet and quirky, executed by a fabulous cast that knows how to turn on the Irish charm. And with shows selling out, it’s clear that the theater community has welcomed back AIRE with open arms.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. Contact her at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @ahboyle

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