RyLo Media Design, Ryan C. Loyd

This event was scheduled August 11-27, 2023.

Stones in His Pockets, by Northern Ireland playwright Marie Jones, is the kind of play that attracts actors who want to play multiple roles in several accents and theatre-goers who love to see actors play multiple roles in several accents.

Billed as a “clash of cultures” as well as a “tragicomedy,” the play derives most of its comedy from the interactions between a movie crew attempting to film an “authentic” period piece and the residents of a County Kerry village recruited to play extras in the cast (and who are happy to ham it up per their on-set directions). It derives its tragedy (and title) from an admittedly tragic event that occurs in part due to one of those encounters, and the resulting conflict between finishing a movie on time and honoring local customs recognizing the worth of an individual.

The recipient of many accolades—in 2001 the play won two Olivier Awards and was nominated for three Tony Awards for its six-month run on Broadway—the piece relies on two consummate actors to make the 14 different roles come alive, and that is its main attraction.

In the SLO REP production currently playing through August 27, Billy Breed and Jeffrey Salsbury, two of the area’s most versatile and proficient actors, carry the two-hour play on their shoulders as if they have been doing absolutely nothing else but rehearsing for months and practicing their various accents even longer. Thanks to their hard work and to Los Angeles-based dialect coach Tyler Seiple, the audience is indeed transported to County Kerry. Transitioning between 14 different characters in literally seconds (often with just a flick of a scarf or the addition of a hat) and doing it almost every five minutes are feats in themselves.

Director Lawrence Lesher calls the story of the play “simultaneously exuberant and despondent, celebratory and haunting, acerbic and tender,” and has worked directorial magic in helping Breed and Salsbury find their footing in the character transitions that at first might be a bit confusing to the audience. Ultimately Lesher brings out the best in his actors, helping them hit the right notes to engage the audience in what seems to be, by the end of the play, its central point: people are people, just trying to get by, and sometimes people make choices between financial gain and human kindness.

The stage is relatively bare: a lovely backdrop representing the lovely countryside, and a few low stone walls that often serve as launching points for Breed and Salsbury as they inhabit their various roles with adept displays of physicality (including one lively dance sequence). This simple set by the masterful Dave Linfield is enhanced frequently by changes in lighting and the addition of sound effects, both exactly and skillfully designed by Kevin Harris.

Other than the donning of a hat or scarf or glasses, the only real costume changes occur when the two actors wheel in a trunk at the end of their days as “extras” to exchange their costumes for their everyday clothing. This business, along with the multiple quick shifts in character, raises the audience’s perception of the play from “talky” to “amusing,” then ultimately to “awe-inspiring” at the work that was put into this production.

That being said, the play itself isn’t for everyone. It delivers some droll lines, such as one character complaining that the movie people think “the cows aren’t Irish enough,” and it milks an aging character’s credential that he’s “the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man.” It makes its point, hitting the mark it sets for itself, with little other fanfare.

In the end, the reason to see this particular production at SLO REP in downtown San Luis Obispo is to see two outstanding performers and a talented crew bring the pages of a script to life in person, in a neighborhood theatre, in a time when it’s just too easy to stay at home and watch Netflix.

:: Charlotte Alexander