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Theatre Banshee Offers a Strong Production of the Uneven 'Dolly West's Kitchen'

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Shawn Savage and Kirsten Kollender in "Dolly West's Kitchen" at Theatre Banshee. Photo: Donald Agnelli
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Here’s something I learned this week: during World War II, Ireland remained neutral. Of course, saying you’re neutral and actually being neutral are two different things, and that psychological dichotomy underlies most of the tension in Frank McGuinness’ Dolly West’s Kitchen. The play benefits from its concentration on an area of the war that hasn’t been much covered in theater, although it is flawed in a couple of major ways. The new production at Theatre Banshee, however, is about as good a presentation of this show as one might hope for, with a terrific cast highlighted by a superb Casey Kramer.

In the early days of WWII, the West family lives in the Irish town of Buncrana, removed from the shooting but not from the worry that Britain could fall and Germany might occupy the Emerald Isle. Dolly (Kirsten Kollender), who had to abandon her restaurant in Italy to avoid the rise of Mussolini, is the current head of the household because matriarch Rima (Casey Kramer) is more content to garden and drink. Sister Esther (Kacey Camp) is unhappy about her marriage, while younger brother Justin (Brett Mack) is letting his position in the Irish Army go to his head. Things change when Dolly’s British ex-lover Alec (Shawn Redding) arrives with two American GIs in tow, as people partner up frantically before the war puts them all in a Cuisinart and hits spin.

Kollender is splendid as the worldly and willful Dolly, demonstrating surface strength and bruising wit but also vulnerability right beneath. Camp captures Esther’s bitterness vividly, but doesn’t completely convince with her character’s eventual change of heart. Redding makes an appropriate partner for the impressive Dolly, matching her point for point, but unfortunately his second act situation as written comes off as clichéd. Mack is believable as the petulant Justin and manages to makes his character’s major change convincing through sheer emotion.

Natalie Hope MacMillan brings bright comic energy and skill to the housemaid Anna, and Greg Bryan makes Esther’s long-suffering husband Ned effectively sympathetic. Cameron J. Oro’s obvious talent isn’t enough to make his proudly out homosexual Marco credible in this setting and time period, and Martin Doordan is entirely too glum as his cousin Jamie. Finally, Kramer is clearly having a ball as Rima, a self-professed “bad bitch who says what she likes.” She’s a delight to behold, getting the biggest laughs in the show but also delivering on all of her dramatic moments as well. It’s one of those perfect meetings of actor and role, and the results are wonderful.

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Director McKerrin Kelly gets good work from her actors and stages the show smoothly, but isn’t able to overcome the two inherent flaws in the play. McGuinness’ technique of having his characters speak and act in more modern ways than they likely did back in 1940s Ireland mostly works, but his inclusion of the very much “out” Marco seems entirely anachronistic. A guy openly hitting on every straight man in his path would not have just been seen as adorably wacky in that era — homophobia was alive and well for not only the Irish but also the Brits and Yanks, and “don’t ask, don’t tell” was but a pretty dream back then. The play’s second flaw is that the concluding act is far weaker and more conventional than the first act, which is a letdown. Dan Conroy’s home set is spare but effective, and Jessica Dalager’s costume design, particularly Dolly’s array of stylish outfits, is clever and evocative of the era.

“Dolly West’s Kitchen” runs through December 4, 2011. Tickets are available online.