Theatre: Larry Kirwan’s "Hard Times" Resurrects a Forgotten 19th Century Community and Brings a Modern Audience to Its Feet

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How It’s New York: Hard Times takes place in a bar in Manhattan’s old neighborhood of Five Points and is running through September 30th at the Cell Theatre in Chelsea.   



How It’s Irish: Hard Times was written by Wexford man, Larry Kirwan, playwright, novelist, author, and leader of the band Black ’47.  It is set during the riots and protests staged by Irish immigrants during the American Civil War. 



John Kearns reviews Larry Kirwan’s American musical, Hard Times, which runs through Sunday. They added an extra matinee on Saturday, the 29th, due to demand. It is SOLD OUT but well worth your going along and trying to find an empty seat. We’ve put up some other posts about it too, you can read an interview with Larry here and see a promo here.. John finds the play goes by too fast, and particularly loves the music, which he calls the play’s “heart and soul.”

Hard Times’s amalgamation of themes reveal themselves from the first moments of this ebullient, stirring, and relevant American musical.  A white man in black face (John Charles McLaughlin as Owen Duignan) sings with a discernible Irish lilt, the Stephen Foster minstrel song, “Camptown Races.”  The merry start of the song quickly shifts into anger, however, and the stomping in Duignan’s Irish step dancing starts to express rage and humiliation – humiliation that members of his race must blacken their faces and humiliate members of another race in order to earn dollars from Anglo-Saxon Yankee race.  Kirwan interpolates his own words into the Foster melody and McLaughlin practically spits the bitterness of the lyrics about the situation his poverty and the prejudice of his new country has forced upon him. 

Hard Times focuses on a set of characters trapped inside a Five Points bar as the tragic and brutal draft riots of 1863 rage outside: an African-American bar owner, Nelly Blythe (Almeria Campbell) and young man, Thomas Jefferson (Stephane Duret), the Irish performer, Owen Duignan (McLaughlin), the Irish-American songwriter, Stephen Foster (Jed Peterson), and a Nativist member of the Bowery Boys, Michael Jenkins (Philip Callen).  Through the course of the play, we see how these people from disparate backgrounds have learned (inconsistently and, at times, begrudgingly) to tolerate and even respect one another because of their shared poverty, their similar talents and skills, and their sexual attraction for one another.  Events outside the bar   the riots, the war, and the impending economic competition between the Irish and the newly emancipated African-Americans – put pressure on these interpersonal relationships, and it is clear that this community of tolerance at the bottom of the economic ladder will soon be replaced by ethnic ghettos of mistrust.   

Kirwan spices Hard Times with humor and clever dialog, as when Nelly, complaining about minstrel shows, asks Duignan, 

“How would you like it if I said all of you paddies keep pigs in your kitchens?!” and Duignan answers, “Only the rich ones.”  

Later, when Michael Jenkins’s affections for Nelly appear to be too weak to appear before family and friends, Nelly quips, “Love is a brittle thing.  It breaks up easily if it don’t have a backbone.”


Almeria Campbell

Almeria Campbell is outstanding, conveying the broad range of emotions that Nelly Blythe experiences through the course of Hard Times: defiance, occasional joy, anger, sadness, a clear attraction to a Know-Nothing Bowery Boy, sympathy for others, and determination to survive and to command respect in the space within her bar, though she knows white men control the space without.


Likewise, John Charles McLaughlin effectively portrays all of the conflicts that Owen Duignan suffers through: the damage prejudiced audiences do to his pride, his having to hide his attraction and affection for Foster, his sorrow over the burning of the Colored Orphanage, and his confusion over being blamed for it. 


Jed Peterson

Jed Peterson also shows us the difficulty of Foster’s double life, in his scenes with Duignan and in the flashback scenes with his dutiful wife, Jane, played convincingly by Erin West.  Peterson also paints a vivid portrait of the struggling artist who wants to create the music he is inspired to create, whether or not it is commercially successful at the moment. 


Duret creates an effective character of a young man who at first is concerned simply for his own safety but over the course of the show develops into a defiant and forgiving grown man.  As Nelly says, sometimes a boy becomes a man very quickly, “sometimes even in one night.” 

 
Philip Callen ably portrays the conflicts faced by Michael Jenkins, a Nativist with racist tendencies in love with an African-American woman. 


But music is truly the heart and soul of Hard Times


With an onstage, in-character band of piano, upright bass, guitar, and fiddle, Hard Timesshowcases the melodies and lyrics of Stephen Foster, brought to life, as the old Points neighborhood is, with performances that reveal their emotional intensity and aching beauty.  Two of Larry Kirwan’s songs ring out in Hard Times, as well, providing a bold climax to Act I and making music of the dilemma inherent in the affection between Nelly and Jenkins at the start of Act II. 


Jed Peterson and Erin West

Presenting Foster’s familiar songs at length – beyond the first verses we probably learned in grammar school – showed Foster’s considerable lyrical ability and reveals him as a poet of 19th-century America as well as a songwriter of prodigious talent.  (I couldn’t help being reminded of another under-appreciated 19th century New York composer of verses, Edgar Allan Poe). 


“Gentle Annie” comes across as though it were composed on the other side of the Atlantic by Foster’s “proud Hibernian” forbears.  Nelly and Jefferson voice “In the Eyes Abide the Heart” as a plea for judging people for what is in their hearts and not by the color of their skin. 


Kirwan’s song “Five Points” provides a rousing conclusion to the Act I.  Sung by Duignan, it is clearly from the point of view of an Irish immigrant,

 “I didn’t come here to America/Across the raging foam/To die like a slave in a pig sty/I came here to find a home.” 

 However, as Nelly says and the first act makes clear, “Everyone in the Five Points has left something behind.”  So, when the others join in the singing, “Five Points” becomes a war cry for all residents of that obstreperous ghetto, “Mess with my home and my family/And the Five Points will go up in flames.”


John Charles McLaughlin

Kirwan’s “The Choice Is Yours to Make” works well as a dramatic song, as we see the relationship between Jenkins and Nelly teetering on the brink of commitment.  But the chorus is phrased as a question and we are not sure as to the choices the two will make. 


In a flashback to 12 years earlier, Stephen Foster touchingly sings “Beautiful Dreamer” for his wife, Jane (Erin West), lending the piece an air of Celtic melancholy.   

Jane had asked him to sing it as he truly wanted it to be heard, and she seems to suspect that it had been inspired by some secret lover. 


Jane, Foster, and Duignan give voice to the melodiousness and dejection of “Why No One to Love,” but Kira Simring’sdirection turns the song performance into a dramatic scene.  As they sing, the three actors form a literal triangle to portray the love triangle in Stephen Foster’s life.  Erin West’s facial expressions during the song show us all we need to know: she now understands what “ails” her husband and why he had seemed distant.


Stephane Duret and Almeria Campbell

“Old Folks at Home” is a revelation.  It begins as a silly demeaning minstrel song by Jenkins.  But, when it is taken over by Jefferson (who was not allowed to perform on stage for white people unless in black face), “Old Folks at Home” becomes a bluesy expression of missing where you come from — and the audience begins to sit up and pay attention.  As the song moves toward its heartfelt conclusion, it becomes downright moving.


As Jefferson concludes his performance, there is a poignant and comical moment.  He turns toward the Nativist Bowery Boy, Jenkins, and asks if the song, written by an alcoholic gay Irish-American and sung by a young African-American man defying convention, “is it American enough for you?”


Philip Callen

The song, “Hard Times Come Again No More” is another revelation.  Familiar as a folk tune recorded by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, this rendition is given a gospel flavor by Campbell who syncopates the rhythm and makes the 150-year-old song sound new. 


The ending comes a bit suddenly and might be unsatisfying dramatically but, musically, it brought down the house.  The uproarious conclusion had the audience clapping to “Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts,” the song that Foster had been determined to finish.  When Duignan joins hands with Jefferson during the number and Nelly places hers on top, you are struck by the realization that this is just the way things should be and always should have been.


Hard Times runs a little under two hours, including a fifteen-minute intermission, but during both acts I felt that time was slipping away too quickly, that there were not enough songs left, that the show would be over too soon.  I also repeatedly had the feeling that the show was too large for the wonderful space of the Cell Theatre, that it is just a matter of time before Hard Times moves on to bigger things.  People must have had the same feeling at one of the early Black ’47 gigs at cramped old Paddy Reilly’s.
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