How it’s New York: Irish Rep is one of New York’s most acclaimed theatres.
How it’s Irish: Brian Friel is Irish, the play is set in Ireland, and it depicts a turning point in Irish history.
Editor’s note: this review, also an analysis, contains spoilers.Brian Friel has been called the Irish Chekhov. it’s easy to see why: like the Russian master, he tells his stories gently, with people who are often aristocrats (in fact, he has a play called “Aristocrats”) sitting around talking, the action all in subtext.
But not always.
“Translations” tells a story of betrayal and love and abandonment in its story. And so does “The Home Place,” finishing a many times extended run at Irish Rep on Sunday, Dec. 17. It’s only the second time Friel’s last play, written in 2005, set in 1878, has been produced in America. The Guthrie presented it in 2007.
Friel would be proud. The beautiful production is haunting; a dream that’s about to be a nightmare. Literally. I lost sleep.
Reviewers can be forgiven for missing this point. Even those who loved it missed it. There’s a secret and a sucker
Yes, Charlotte Moore helms a talented cast with nuance and grace. Yes, there’s a Downton Abbey-like charm to James Noone’s set of a dining room and an outdoor patio, and to David Toser’s elegant period costumes.
But it would be a mistake to assume that the action is on the surface. There’s a lot churning underneath, and not just feelings.
The play is a masterpiece, and Moore does it proud.
I was so unnerved by the play’s final line that I emailed the director with my theory. (Spoiler: she said I was on to something.)
The very last moment of the play gives us a clue, and, like the moment at the end of “The Sixth Sense,” makes you rethink everything.
On the surface, the play tells the story of Christopher Gore (John Windsor-Cunningham), whose “home place” is in Kent. He’s Anglo-Irish, although he and his family have been in Ballybeg, Friel’s fictional town in Donegal, Northern Ireland, since, well, ever.
He is in love with his Irish housekeeper Maggie (Rachel Pickup), who calls him by his first name. The other servant, impudent Sally, does too. Nobody, not even Christopher’s snobbish brother Richard (Christopher Randolph), who’s visiting, seems to find that odd.
Pickup is a slender, dignified presence, with a soft voice and a Gwyneth Paltrow luminosity that makes it understandable that nearly every man we meet is in love with her.
As the play begins we learn a local, cruel landlord Lord Lifford has just been killed, and Christopher had been at the funeral: that’s a fictionalization of the actual murder of William Clements, Earl of Leitrim, which happened in that year. It’s the thick of the Home Rule movement: no doubt Irish people would infer that from the play’s title “The Home Place.” The Home Rule League had formed in 1873, and by 1878, Charles Stewart Parnell had joined with Fenians in Irish-America, including Irishman Michael Davitt (whose family had settled in Philadelphia) and John Devoy. Their goal? End landlordism in Ireland.
As the play opens, Maggie hears a choir singing. It’s her dad’s choir: her father, Clement O’Donnell ((Robert Langdon-Lloyd)who is a drunkard, is also the choirmaster and headmaster of a local school. She seems saddened or distracted by the music.
But it might be something more. It might be a sign: whether of internal knowledge or external warning.
Maggie and impertinent housemaid Sally (Andrea Lynn Green) discuss the funeral where the master is (Friel handles it nicely but this exposition device of having servants talking is a little hoary): an unpopular landlord who was murdered by Irish people.
Christopher keeps asking Maggie what she knows. Is there a list? And he’s right to wonder: all her adult life Maggie has lived at The Lodge. She has her pick of father or son. But she’s Irish. Con (Johnny Hopkins), Sally’s boyfriend, a rebel who was in on the murder, is her cousin. She seems to disapprove, but what does she know? What is she trying not to know?
Maggie has a soft spot for Christopher’s son David (Ed Malone), who is immature to the point of idiocy, dreaming of whisking her away to Africa and becoming a farmer.
Richard an anthropologist, or is it ethnologist? Christopher and Maggie have a laugh about it– is visiting, and he wants to measure the heads of various races under the theory that physiognomy is destiny.
It’s weird and chilling to see the almost lovably eccentric eugenics, in this political climate. This 2005 depicts Irish history, but it’s also about now.
A scene where he measures some of Christopher’s tenants is uncomfortable– and then Con arrives and it’s an uprising.
Most reviewers focused on that, mise-en-scene and the nuanced and occasionally funny performances (Green and Stephen Pilkington, as Perkins, a bumbling manservant to Richard, provide the laughs). They didn’t note that:
Friel lets us know early on that Maggie never visits her home. So that last line, when she says her father will come, is a sucker punch.
When Con says “we” have no quarrel with Christopher, that is the opposite of reassuring. If Con’s silent and dangerous partner MacLoone (Gordon Tashjian), who tells Sally to “watch yourself, woman,” has his way, all landowners are probably going down.
Friel has achieved something truly remarkable: sympathy for the oppressor who’s as caught in a trap as the people who are oppressed. Christopher exudes decency and kindness. He lacks even the genteel snobbery of Chekhovian aristocrats. He means well, and does well. But he’s still a colonial, and his motto, “rise above,” is going to fail him. He knows it, and it’s tragic. Windsor-Cunningham, so good as General Burgoyne in Irish Rep’s “The Devil’s Disciple” a fe years back, makes you see why Maggie would love him, even if not romantically. It’s a rare performance.
As in “The Cherry Orchard,” trees are going down: in this case not for commercial buildings to be put up but because the trees themselves are doomed. David is marking them with paint, and paints his father by accident. It’s amlost perfect symbolism for the situation.
The company are outstanding. As the drunken father who visits and meanders about the wonders of the soul of Thomas Moore, Langdon Lloyd both inahbits the cartoon stage Irishman and dignifies him. Randolph makes his snob vile and pathetic. The two villagers who come to be measured, Polly McKie as widowed, impoverished Mary Sweeney who begs for some money (which Christopher willingly provides), and Phil Gillen adorable young “virile Tommy Boyle” who just wants his photograph because “the mammy thinks I’m beautiful,”respectively hurt and amuse. As David, Malone is hapless, but shouts a bit too much on every line, sounding angry even when he isn’t.
Christopher and David interject, but feebly, when Richard condescends to “the natives.”
“Interjects, but feebly” is the theme for Friel’s Anglo-Irish. It’s not by coincidence that Richard boasts of knowing William Wilde: Oscar’s father. The Wildes were also Anglo_irish, though Oscar’s mother, known as Speranza, was a fervent nationalist.
In case you still think this a hazy sort of “this is what it was like before the deluge” play:
There is that final moment.
Maggie hears the choir singing “Oft in the Stilly Night” again. Her face clouds. She comforts Christopher, distraught over her love for David, distraught over the day’s events, and tells him to pay attention to the music, pay attention to the music.
And then the music changes its sound, becoming somewhat more echoey and isolated. And Maggie says “Because in a short time Father will come up here for me.” It could mean no more than she understands his habits. It could be that she knows the divide has happened.
If home is where the heart is, Christopher is justly heartbroken.
And so are those that love him.