Playwright Gary Mitchell comes from the Belfast housing estate of Rathcoole.
Of growing up there, Mitchell once said, “The smart thing to do was be stupid, and that’s more common than we let on.”
He told the Belfast Telegraph in 2014 that while stuck in a dead-end job, he joined the local Arts Council, in parts to meet girls. He wound up writing plays, first for BBC radio, then the stage.
The plays are set in the world he knows, and because he doesn’t seem to sugar-coat that world, while he was building a renowned career, writing became a dangerous job for Mitchell.
In 2005, Mitchell and his family went into hiding for about five years after paramilitary loyalists blew up the family car and set the house on fire with a gasoline bomb.
“People, for their own insane reasons, started to think I must be to blame for something. If all these Catholics liked me, I must be doing something wrong,” Mitchell told The Telegraph.
The above alone makes it’s tough to figure out why Mitchell’s works apparently haven’t been produced much, if at all, in Chicago, a city known for its visceral theatrical productions and violent socioeconomic issues of its own.
That changes this week when Irish Theatre of Chicago offers the local premiere of Mitchell’s “A Little World of Our Own,” a lauded work for which Mitchell received the 1998 Irish Times Theatre Award for best new play and which was performed for the Abbey Theatre’s first visit to the Lyric, Belfast.
The press release for the show states, “Set against the violent tremors in the North, three brothers are thrust into a tense whodunit where one of them must pay for a heinous crime.”
Of a 2003 Hothouse Theatre Company production in St. Louis, Joel Lewis said, “Wherever rival factions hate each other beyond direct memory, that’s where this play is set.”
“What drew us to the play is it’s a good story, told in an interesting way,” director Jeri Frederickson said. “While it uses the situation of Mitchell’s upbringing, for a lot of reasons it’s relatable to people here in Chicago, including that families everywhere have to make difficult choices.”
With a violent sex crime at the center of a story set in a violent world, that play also explores the question of truth – who is telling it and if the truth even matters, Frederickson said.
As Mitchell’s life illustrates, while the Troubles may be fading in the feint stench of a relatively recent past, their impact lingers. While not living on the lam, Mitchell doesn’t live in Rathcoole anymore, and “it was a scavenger hunt to track him down,” Frederickson said. “We communicated by email and once by phone, and he was very open and friendly.”
Frederickson noted that the play also gives the troupe “to look at things from that (loyalist, Protestant) side. There’s been far more theater here from the (Republican) Catholic side, and Mitchell’s work shows there are many layers to why they (loyalists) believe what they believe.”
Another challenge of the production has been getting the very specific Rathcoole accent right.
“It’s different even than the Belfast accent, with changes in the vowel sounds,” Frederickson said. “But to make it clear to an American audience we do a diet version.”
Diet accent or not, Frederickson hopes local audiences develop a taste for Mitchell’s play.
“I hope he gets produced more here in Chicago,” she said.
If you go…
The Irish Theatre of Chicago production of “A Little World of Our Own,” at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Chicago has a preview performance Wednesday, March 2 at 7:30 p.m. and a press performance Thursday, March 3 at 7:30 p.m.
The regular run is Friday, March 4 through Sunday, April 10, 2016. Curtain times Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3 p.m.
Tickets for the preview are $12, and during the regular run are $26 Thursdays/Fridays, $30 Saturdays/Sundays, with seniors/students $5 off.
For more information visit www.irishtheatreofchicago.org.