How it’s New York: Irish Arts Center is a New York fixture, and this is the third play of Deirdre Kinahan’s that they’ve presented. In addition, “aging in place” is a universal issue– New York as much as Ireland.
How it’s Irish: Deirdre Kinahan is an Irish playwright
A version of this review was published in Irish Examiner USA, Tuesday, May 14.
When you’re sick and old, you spend a lot of time sitting around.
We first meet Patricia (Anita Reeves) in Deirdre Kinahan’s play “These Halcyon Days,” which is set in a nursing home in Dublin, as she wrestles with a sticky door in the conservatory.
Kinahan’s play runs at the Irish Arts Center through Sunday, June 2.
Patricia would rather not just sit around, but unable to get outside, that’s what she does. Soon her attention is drawn to Seán (Stephen Brennan), sitting quietly in a wheelchair. Bored, sharp and somewhat shrill, she draws him out almost against her better judgment, muttering derogatory comments about him when he takes too long to answer. He offers her tea, though the nurse hasn’t brought it yet. “What are you in for?” she says, which gets a laugh.
Once he quotes Shakespeare at her, though, in a gentle, breathy way, she realizes he was once an actor, a film actor even, an actor who even worked with Michael Caine, and is thrilled. Patricia was a schoolteacher and lived with her sister, to whom she expects soon to return, although, it’s a given in plays like this, that she’s sicker than she thinks and probably can’t go home. She has a liver condition, and has had strokes, which keep her hand from working properly. One of the play’s funnier moments is when she insists that her liver condition is not brought on by drinking, which is what everyone always assumes. Illness does have a funny side.
In the course of Kinahan’s gentle two-hander, these two aging, damaged people find a connection that is meaningful, heartwarming and literally invigorating. They bring each other back to life. Patricia is sick, but not really all that old. Seán is older, but doesn’t really need the wheelchair, and an incident early on that suggests “sundowning,” or a dementia-like confusion, never repeats. He might instead just be deeply depressed over the abandonment of his long-time lover, Tom, and in need of a little more company. His niece visits, we hear, but she never stays.
There’s a bit in the movie “Cloud Atlas” where a group of old people break out of a home, which is extremely funny, and also rather touching. “These Halcyon Days” is not that action-packed – there are no pub fights – its action takes place in the hearts and souls of the characters onstage, and in the audience.
Patricia is slow on the uptake about Tom’s homosexuality, but that’s just part of the story, not the point. Whether she goes home again or whether he can walk if he tries, similarly, are part of what’s at stake, but not the center of the play. Although the play appears naturalistic, it isn’t exactly; in a real world, some of the issues touched on would have to be explored further. Sadly, a person with dementia usually can’t live at home; a person who has blackouts can’t be cared for at home either. Unsurprisingly, a nursing “home” doesn’t feel like home.
But “These Halcyon Days” is a love story, if not of romantic love, and like the Shakespeare Seán quotes, explores what it means to be human. And how to live with dignity. These are important questions. The story is a little predictable, but the story isn’t the point.
As always, Kinahan infuses sharp observations into her naturalistic dialogue. When we first meet Patricia, she grumbles about there being a yoga class for the infirm in the day room. Later, she tells Tom they should put him in the brochures:
“You’d draw more people in than the incontinence chairs.”
Sean says a bit less, but what he says has poetry in it, particularly when he talks about his family’s home in the country (that word again: home). It had nine fields, he says, and lists them:
“Clancy’s Field. Hay Field. The Callows. Castle Hill. Railway. Split Hill. Baileys Gate. Louie’s. The Inch… And home.”
It’s a sonnet.
Reeves’ emphatic, bold Patricia beautifully contrasts Brennan’s shy then suddenly exuberant Seán. Director David Horan lightly keeps the action going, never allowing it to sink too far into the boredom of the home itself. Maree Kearns’ set, one room with a door to the outside, and a few chairs, nicely shows both the grayness and the goldenness of the setting, matched by the rather drab costumes she’s put on the characters. Kevin Smith’s lights go from institution grey to a more hopeful gold, as well.
“These Halcyon Days” is not a play about old people. It’s a play about people. These two find their way home, and into our hearts, when they find each other.
“These Halcyon Days,” a Tall Tales Theatre Company/Solstice Arts Centre Production, presented by Irish Arts Center in association with Landmark Productions, runs at Irish Arts Center, 563 West 51st Street, Wednesday to Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 2 p.m. and Sunday, 3 p.m., through Sunday, June 2. Tickets at irishartscenter.org or by calling 866-811-4111.