TheatreNOW’s annual celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and contributions from generations of Irish immigrants to American society is underway with their latest stage offering: “Shamrock Holmes,” an Irish wake-meets-murder mystery written and directed by Penny Kohut.
The dinner-theatre experience opens in Shenanigans Pub, where owner Maggie O’Shea (Penny Kohut) is about to be evicted based upon the unscrupulous activities of recently deceased Will MacFee (Adam Rogers). But being dead is no excuse, and so at Will’s wake, John Fountainbaum (Craig Kittner) reads Will’s will (after a laugh-filled and lengthy play on “Who’s on First?” but with Will’s will). Filled with menace, anger and all the obnoxious aggression that typifies a courtroom attorney, he finds himself surprised to announce Will was murdered! By someone in this very room!
Cue dramatic music by Michael Lauricella, a wigged priest and pianist who seems to live at Shenanigans.
The obvious suspect to many people is, of course, MacFee’s greedy but irritatingly stupid new widow, Lillian (Holly Cole Brown). The appearance of local historian and armchair detective Shamrock Holmes (Ron Hasson)—complete with pipe and tweed jacket—signals the game is afoot.
This is a lot to mull over on an empty stomach, but Chef Denise Gordon is determined not to let that happen. She starts the evening with a green-veggie soup with pretzel bites on the side. I am personally a little freaked out by food that gets dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day, so I was relieved to find the green comes from the food content, not added dye. It has the taste and feeling of nourishing homemade soup Mom would make fresh from the garden. Really, that is what Gordon focuses on throughout the evening: celebrating food of fishermen and farmers. The white fish and smoked salmon pie looks and tastes a lot like the fish stew I ate constantly in Iceland: protein, matched with potatoes to thicken it and stretch it across a family. Gordon has added a tangy dill sauce that gives it a bit more zing.
The side dish of choice is another garden celebration of kale, potatoes, carrots, and onions with a honey-mustard dressing that could convince the most picky diner to eat their vegetables. Though, for sheer dramatic effect, the meatless “steak” pie is the winner. Its puffy pie crust is fun to break off and dunk in the stout gravy. It also wins for a hearty meal to stick to the ribs.
Kohut’s script is (on the surface) ridiculously fun, but she has actually built an evening to celebrate Irish culture. The 2013 Census identified more than 10 percent of the American population as descended from Irish immigrants. Kohut likes to focus on audience participation, so one part of the evening has an Irish-trivia component with folks receiving shamrock prizes for correct answers. Of course, significant portions of the evening is given over to singing Irish ballads, like “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Wild Rover (No Nay Never)” and “Whiskey in the Jar.” Plan to sing and hold a drink aloft. Guinness is recommended. Thankfully, “Danny Boy” is not featured. (Frankly, after the Muppets’ recording, there really isn’t a version out there to compete.)
Meanwhile, Shamrock Holmes periodically reminds us there is a murder mystery to solve. Clues are dropped, accusations are made.Hasson’s Holmes enjoys his pomposity. Brown’s Lillian irritates and offends just about everyone. Kohut’s Maggie is a force to be reckoned with, and the long-suffering priest (Laurincella) gets some of the best jokes when the rest of the cast are occupied.
Kohut does a wonderful job of staging a very fun, experiential evening. St. Patrick’s Day is the reason for the season, as it were. But St. Patrick’s Day, in the United Sates at least, is a celebration of Irish culture and heritage more than a religious festival. Some of the earliest colonial settlers in NC were Irish and Scotch-Irish. But the major wave of Irish immigration in the U.S. was during the 1800s in response to the Ireland’s Great Famine. Irish communities mushroomed, especially in large eastern cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia. By the mid-19th century, this ethnic group found themselves on the receiving end of prejudice encapsulated in the “No Irish Need Apply” slogan.
Given the prominence Irish Americans have attained and the multitude of contributions to our country, it can be hard to remember they were once so reviled. But a president, Irish poet-quoting vice president, a multitude of stock-car racers, musicians, writers, athletes and scientists aside, Kohut’s show indirectly reminds us of thousands of hardworking small businesses owners who create communities across this country. That is the real daily gift Irish immigrants and their children and grandchildren continue to offer.
So, raise a glass, sing a ballad ,and share a night of good food and fun with friends and family. TheatreNOW really encapsulates all of these gifts with each show, but somehow they reminded me of what they really try to do with “Shamrock Holmes”: connect a web of people, art and conviviality. The play is fun, and the cast will make sure folks leave with a spring in their steps and a song in their hearts.