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