Theatre Review: DruidMurphy is Terrible (and Great)

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Marie Mullen in Famine (@Stephanie Berger)
How It’s New York: DruidMurphy is part of the Lincoln Center Festival, one of NYC’s culture extravaganzas bringing performances from all over the world to us here in the city.
How It’s Irish: Tom Murphy is a quintessentially important Irish playwright, and this cycle is brought to us by Galway’s Druid Theatre (hence the name, DruidMurphy).
A version of this article first appeared in Irish Examiner USA, July10.
The last day of the cycle is Saturday the 14th. Don’t wait! They are terrible to bear and impossible to forget.

Home Is The Place Where… 

Terrible.  

The plays by Tom Murphy that make up the cycle called DruidMurphy in the Lincoln Center Festival, which run through July 14, are terrible.

They cause alarm, fear, and terror.

They are awful.
And wonderful. 

 Director Garry Hynes precisely leads her excellent company through three plays that investigate Ireland as home, refuge, trap: 1985’s Conversations on a Homecoming; 1961’s A Whistle in the Dark, and 1968’s Famine.
There are small, powerful moments that are destined to stay inside your head forever.
There are also emotional crashes that caused the audience at Sunday’s packed cycle, which lasted from 1 until 10 pm, to gasp. 
Hynes moves backward in time to the shock that creates the disturbing, hopeless picture we encounter in the first play of the cycle, Conversations on a Homecoming, which is set in 1970. 
Garrett Lombard, Eileen Walsh and Rory Nolan (@Catherine Ashmore)

That play shows us a young man returned from America full of pretense that his best friend punctures, in a town that at best can offer quiet, but not peace, a place where dreams are dangerous and ambition is a scourge. 

In the second play of the cycle, A Whistle in the Dark, set in London in 1960, we see a young Irish man who has successfully left home, only to be beaten down, both figuratively and literally, by the brothers and father who follow him there, and bring their need to fight and swing at the world with them. 
And then there is Famine, set in Ireland in 1846. It looks at the effect of the famine on the proud Connor family in the town of Glenconnor, and at the appalling callousness of the people who could have helped. 
Before our eyes we watch as people who are good, brave, tight-knit, deteriorate.

In an ideal world you’d see them in that order, and then perhaps go back and see them in reverse order.

Hynes has carefully cast her company so that an actor playing a character who has more anger and violence brought out in him in Famine, for example, plays one of the thuggish brothers in A Whistle in the Dark. 

 If you only see one, then read the rest. I find myself picking up my collected volumes of Tom Murphy and reading and re-reading them.

Admittedly, these plays aren’t light. There are some laughs, but there isn’t much joy.
Despite their unflinching examination of despair, the plays never wallow.
The characters are struggling not to, so you root for them.

There is suspense, rather than existential malaise. Even as you know, deep down, that there probably isn’t going to be a happy ending, you keep hoping. That hope is the point.

This is largely due to Murphy’s luminous skills as a dramatist.
Someone poses a question, and rather than answering, a character glosses over it. For the rest of the scene we wait and wait for an answer. A character wonders where another person is, so we wonder too. One character alludes to another’s motivation, so when we see that character, we watch closely. It is all artful.

The dialogue feels natural and overheard, often meandering, but these plays are tightly constructed and delivered. Not a line is wasted. Not a moment could be lost.

Murphy, as we mentioned two weeks ago, is not so well known here in New York, though the 77-year-old writer has been a huge influence on Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Enda Walsh, Colm Tóibín and many others. DruidMurphy should change that.

Conversations on a Homecoming

Mary Rea and Aaron Monaghan (@Catherine Ashmore)

In a pub, a young woman behind the bar stares into space, while a man reads a paper at a table downstage right. The wallpaper is wrinkled and old. A picture of J.F.K. hangs on the wall.
Francis O’Connor’s design and Sam Jackson’s wistful piano music add greatly to the atmosphere of all three plays.
 
Before long, others enter, but though there are friendly greetings, the silence, and the sound of the clock, are pervasive. Everyone is waiting for Michael, who has just returned from America, to come in. In many ways this play is about waiting- for a person, for a moment, for a chance. It’s a bleak world, but somehow watching this collection of mostly bitter or resigned people, who for the most part are still under 40, is going to feel odd for American audiences. But these are people who are unable to escape from the grip of the Church, their own failure, the grip of alcoholism, the begrudgers. Only Michael got away, and they wait for him with both hope, anxiety and resentment.

When Michael does arrive,  nearly bumping into the young barmaid who is on her way out, he brings a whiff of energy.

Michael (Marty Rea) is an actor who has been trying to make it for 10 years in America.
Handsome and slender, he’s also nervous and eager to please.His best friend Tom (Garrett Lombard), a local schoolteacher who has been engaged for 10 years to Peggy (Eileen Walsh), undercuts his stories and pours out bile against the unseen barkeep, a man called JJ.
JJ once represented idealism, the idealism that inspired the men, once “boys,” to build the pub called The White House.Now that JJ is drinking himself to death, he stands in for everything the others have lost.

A man called Liam (Aaron Monaghan) sits apart from the others.Remember the name: you’ll see it again.From bits of conversation with Missus (Marie Mullen), the sweet woman of the house, we’ll gather he is a wealthy builder. 

Junior (Rory Nolan) tries to keep the peace and start a song, and Peggy tries to jolly everyone along, (Walsh provides most of the play’s lighter, sillier moments) but there is cruelty and anger simmering.

We’ll realize Michael’s terrible stories are about himself, and Tom knows it too. “Why does everyone call me a romantic?” he wonders at one point. “It’s more polite” is the answer. 
It isn’t until late in the play that the two men speak the truth to one another.
Tom stops Michael mid-confession. “Someone has to be doing well,” he says.

The election of Irish-American J.F.K. symbolized hope and possibility, a possibility that now none of them believe in.

As Tom achingly says, “I can’t feel anything about anything anymore.”

Even 18 year old Anne (Beth Cooke), who is drawn to Michael, seems to accept her fate.

This Ireland is a refuge, a home, and as Robert Frost said, the place where when you go there they have to take you in, but it is also a living grave.

A Whistle in the Dark

In 1960, Michael (Marty Rea, same actor and name, but different character) lives with his English wife Betty (Eileen Walsh, remember the long-suffering Peggy?) in Coventry.

Niall Buggy, Gavin Drea and Marty Rea  (Stephanie Berger)

His brothers have come to stay with him, and as the play opens he and Peggy are waiting for a visit from his youngest brother Des (Gavin Drea) and his father (Niall Buggy).

Betty is afraid of Michael’s brothers, who are, as Michael calls them, “a bit wild” – an understatement for men who are brawlers, and worse. Harry (Aaron Monaghan, we met him as Liam) is a pimp.
When Dada (Buggy) arrives, we see where they get it. He’s an ex-guard, a man who prides himself on being one of the fighting Carneys.
It isn’t long before a civilized tea turns into Dada taking his belt off and threatening Michael, putting his arms around his other sons and saying how he’s missed them.

Harold Pinter’s 1964 The Homecoming, as John Lahr pointed out in The Village Voice, owes something to this play, although Pinter’s violent family is more abstracted. In Murphy’s play, the violence is all too believable and motivated.

Where does it all come from? A lot of places – but one is the epithet of “Paddy” that lands on them here in England and, in a way, at home.
Their only recourse to shame and stereotype is to swing out and hit. Or so they think.
Buggy’s Dada terrifies as he inarticulately goes from calm to grand rage.
He compliments himself, pities himself, and excuses himself from any blame.
Yet, in Act II, when Michael has gone out to join the fight, and Dada sits drinking at the table, Betty observes that Michael talks like that sometimes.

It’s an uncomprehending disappointment at how things can go so wrong when he has tried his best. And despite his awfulness, this is touching.

Michael Glenn Murphy plays Mush, a family friend, scampering like a rabbit from the Carneys’ unpredictable outbursts and standing in for us.

Monaghan’s Harry has an oily charm. In some ways he’s the saddest character, because he’s farthest away from what he ought to be.
He remembers the priest searching his head for lice with a knife, slobbering in his ear. And how he once meant it when he said he wanted to be a priest when he grew up – only to be laughed at. Now, he says, he fights.

The battle for whose home is the apartment in Coventry really is just a skirmish as the characters seek a home inside themselves.

Famine

If Conversations on a Homecoming is sad and A Whistle in the Dark makes you angry, Famine will make you want to get back under the covers.

A scene from Famine (Stephanie Berger)

The first scene takes place at a wake, for the daughter of John Connor (Brian Doherty).
The girl may have died from malnourishment, we learn, as the villagers worry about whether the second crop of potatoes will fail like the first. It is 1846, in Glenconnor, County Mayo.

 But this is not a history play per se, not something you can put away in a dusty volume in your mind. Joan O’Clery’s costumes are not Victorian, just ragged. They don’t jar; they actuall draw you in. These people in worn anoraks; they seem familiar. In addition, movement by David Bolger artfully adds expressionistic touches to the epic. Gregory Clarke’s sound adds to Sam Jackson’s music to create a sense of eerie dread, and Chris Davey’s lighting adds to the atmosphere of a world turned upside down.

Although Mark Dineen (Michael Glenn Murphy) insists there are no dark black spots on the leaves, eventually Connor pulls up potatoes – and finds they are black. The worst has happened.
Connor, the virtual chieftain of the town, insists on doing “what’s right.” He insists that so long as he and the others do this, help will come.

We know it won’t, or not in time, so there’s a terrible irony as we watch the 12 scenes unfold. They are numbered and named in the programc.
There is a Love Scene, which takes place in a field between Maeve Connor (Beth Cooke, who we met as Anne, the young, calm barmaid) and Liam Dougan (Gavin Drea; we met him as Des in Coventry).

There is sadness already, as he apparently loved her dead sister before going to London to work, but there is almost joy, too – until their courting is interrupted by the groans of dying people in the field.
Act I ends with “The Relief Committee,” which includes Captain Shine (Rory Nolan, who played peaceable Junior and Iron Man Ignatius), who is an Anglo-Irish landlord full of contempt for his Catholic tenants, who uses a promise of money as an excuse to deliver a speech against them.

Father Daly (Niall Buggy, who was Dada) has to listen because he hopes for some aid, but Shine is hard to bear:

“Ignorance, deceit, rent evasion, begging. This county alone would furnish all England with beggars. Filth, the breeding of disease. But, are they so naturally this way – so naturally destructive?”

Nolan holds nothing back in his portrayal of this despicable character. And when Father Daly replies, finally,

“the fine-cut distinctions you talk about might be due to the fact that men like you still behave like conquerors,”

you want to cheer.

But in the end, the only aid being offered is this aid that comes with the price of treating the Irish like vermin: they will be offered money to emigrate.

When Connor realizes the offer comes with no guarantees of work, no explanations of the voyage, he turns it down – and the village follows suit. And it means destruction.
Connor’s goodness, that grows confused and finally mad, is sad to behold.
As his wife, Sinéad, Marie Mullen (long-suffering Missus, earlier) has grandeur and courage.
In a pivotal scene she begs her husband to “take up his stick.”

The angry O’Learys, twisted Mickeleen (Aaron Monaghan) and Malachy (Garrett Lombard) express the righteous rage the Irish will feel for over a century.
Recognize the names? They play the most angry, most twisted, most disappointed and bitter characters in the other two plays.

The final scene reveals the possibility of a future, but it will be one with tears for the past.
There may yet be redemption – but it will only come with the understanding of that past, if there is tenderness to address it. 

Tom Murphy’s plays go a long way towards that.
They bring these stories, and the history, home.

DruidMurphy runs through July 14 at the Gerald Lynch Theater. The new entrance is located at 524 59th Street, halfway between 10th and 11th Avenues.
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Copyright 2012 New York Irish Arts