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Backstage at Point Park, it's not just what you say -- it's how you say it. 

"Them bitches," the tipsy young priest spits when his underage athletic charges are mentioned. They neither listen nor win, and his frustration is palpable -- and wildly funny.

"Good," Kim Martin nods, then laughs. "Good."

Dave Droxler, who plays Father Welsh, marks his paperback Dramatist's Play Service text, as does Maggie Ryan beside him. Playing Girleen Kelleher, she's three parts hero worship, two parts teen-age vixen, one part potty mouth. The tension between them is obvious.

"Why do you think she loves him?" Martin asks. In the basement rehearsal space at Point Park's Playhouse, Craft Avenue in Oakland, she's directing Martin McDonagh's Tony-Award-winning The Lonesome West, from Feb. 10-27. Hefting her text, she guides her two Point Park alums through the difficult shoals of Irish tragicomedy. 

"He's a depressed, drunk priest," Martin adds.

"She's as sensitive as he is," Ryan answers. "But he hides it in his drink. Finally, she's speaking the truth but hiding it. Lifting the veil and dropping it."

"Right," Martin nods. "But he doesn't see it. Ever. Because he's blinded by his depression and the booze." She pauses. "There's something romantic about all these people killing themselves here."

From broadcasters to Broadway dancers, cruise-ship chorines to CSI:NY's Melina Kanakaredes, behind the scenes and before the footlights, Point Park claims to place more people in the performing arts than any other American university. The 30-ish Droxler, out of Point Park for a decade, has found a home in theater and film, with parts as diverse as McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Ryan, just two years out of school, has stayed in town, acting in such productions as last year's Mad Honey with the Unseam'd Shakespeare Company.

Like many others, they've returned to the Rep for a bit of post-baccalaureate business, and to offer undergrads the opportunity to work alongside professionals. In this production of The Lonesome West, for example, there are student set designers, lighters, costumers. "Our students acquire a wealth of experience they wouldn't otherwise have," Martin says.

This afternoon's rehearsal -- sans blocking, because the entire scene is played with the two characters sitting at a waterside quay -- takes place at a table. Droxler, in zippered sweatshirt and khakis, and Ryan, in red scarf and blue jeans, sit across from Martin, student director Alexis Schwartz and dialect coach Sheila McKenna. 

Schwartz clutches a large red CNN mug, two shades brighter than her fingernails. She follows the script assiduously, penciling in the occasional note. McKenna, in requisite Steelers togs, listens carefully to the march through familiar territory, echoes of Synge and O'Casey, Joyce and Beckett. In a landscape rife with murder and suicide -- there will be two of each before the final curtain -- the young priest feels completely superfluous, and, in a role reversal, confessional.

Girleen, the yearning teen, tries to comfort him. But this is an Irish play, so of course nothing works.

A bit of star gazing, a bit of sexual buzz, Girleen sits close to Father Welsh as he splutters about stunted lives. It's tender and touching, made tighter by Martin's carefully calibrated direction -- and the knowledge, hanging like dust motes in the air, that the priest will shortly drown himself, deeply mired in Irish despair.

They play it a number of ways, trying to get the accents and nuances down. A lilt here, a pause there, and the entire scene shifts.

McKenna points out the difference between ah and ou. "This is West Ireland," she says, "not Belfast." Droxler and Ryan nod, mark their scripts, and try it again.

"Try to resist breaking the line into American rhythms," McKenna says.

The accents, the rhythms, become smoother. An intricate counterpoint, they're the verbal equivalent of fly-tying, tiny sounds fraught with nuance. Er, oi, aou. The actors dutifully annotate their scripts.

"I'm no stool pigeon," Ryan reads, making it stoool pigeon.

"Stuhl," McKenna says.

"Stuhl," Ryan repeats. "Stuhl."

"It's Ireland," Martin mutters. "Better to be a murderer than an informer."

Father Welsh challenges Girleen about her attitude, and she bristles.

"I've got plenty of morals," Ryan reads, a fierce anger rising in her voice. "Only I don't keep whining on about them like some fellows."

"Yes," Martin nods, "that's something."

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