Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
The Whiteheaded Boy
The Whiteheaded Boy is that rare thingsome would say an oxymoronan Irish comedy. In a nation whose history is made up mostly of famine and starvation, invasion and rebellion, conquest and defeat, whose people have been enslaved not just by a foreign power but by class, religion and tradition, comedy is a rare jewel, and all the more precious for its rarity.
A century ago was a time of extreme anger and angst, tragedy and turmoil in Britain's Irish province. Britain, and thus Ireland, was bogged down in the bloody, pointless and endless massacres on the battlefields of France and Belgium. Britain's enemy Germany was making an ineffectual effort to arm Irish advocates of independence. The Easter Uprising of April 1916, the first politically inspired violence on the island in more than a century, killed more than 500 people. It was the opening shot in the Irish wars of independence, which in various forms have continued into our own time.
This is the background against which The Whiteheaded Boy was written and first produced in Dublin. It is a sort of comedy but with faint shadows of the awful times unfolding behind the scenes. Those shadows, however, are so faint that they are usually obscured by the fun on stage.
The basic plot is utter simplicity. The Geoghan familya mother, three sons, and three daughtershas sacrificed everything so that the youngest sibling, 21-year-old Denis (Riley Carson Lewis), can go to a university and become a doctor. Shortly after the play opens, we learn that Denis has failed his examsfor the third time. While the mother (Meta Williams) stands by her pet (whiteheaded boy is a synonym for fair-haired boy), the siblings, led by the oldest, George (Micah Linford), have had enough. They decide to cut Denis loose and send him off to Canada to make his fortune on his own as best he can.
In the second act, the play becomes more engrossing, with more conflict and complications due to the appearance of John Duffy (Shangreaux LaGrave), the wealthiest man in the village and the father of Delia (Ashley Reid), to whom Denis has been engaged for two years. Denis refuses to take Delia to Canada with him and breaks off the engagement. The father is furious and threatens to sue the Geoghan family for breach of promise. What happens next falls into the spoiler category and I'll leave it for those seeing the play to discover.
In the second act, the word freedom recurs repeatedly and the story could be taken as a metaphor for the rebellion that, on the real stage of life, began the previous Easter. But it is not necessary to search out historical analogs to enjoy this play.
Even on the most superficial level, however, this is only in part a comedy. For it becomes clear that the mother, with her other children as midwives, has given life to something of a monster in Denis. One of the most unpleasant characters I have seen on the recent stage, he is sneering, arrogant, lazy, totally self-involved, spoiled, demanding and, it finally emerges in the second act, filled with self-hatred. He was a very ordinary child who was ruined by his family's pretensions that he was something special, a brilliant child destined for greatness, the future salvation of this poor and struggling family.
Director George Williams has fielded a diverse 13-person cast, mixing veterans and newcomers, and set them to work on a simple but flexible and highly effective set created by stage designer Bob Byers. Although most of the women's roles, like real women in the Ireland of a century ago, lack strong personas and make little impression on the stage, the notable exception is Aunt Ellen Geoghan. Kathleen Welker sports an outrageous red wig and mixes a wonderful combination of gossipy and even flirtatious female with the character of a strong-minded businesswoman.
Another standout is Ray Orley as the stage manager. Like the narrator in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Orley conducts a kind of second-level narration, introducing the characters and commenting on their behavior. He has the funniest and most biting lines in the play, and delivers them with a veteran professional's exquisite sense of timing.
Two other standouts are actors who bring to life exceedingly unpleasant characters. Lewis makes Denis into a thoroughly and consistently hateful young man, not an easy thing for an actor to do. And LaGrave manages to make believable John Duffy's viciousness and greediness with a dash of genuine affection and emotion.
All the actors attempt, and by and large succeed at, the difficult feat of speaking in Irish accents. The program credits voice coaches Alan Hudson and Carla Cafolla.
The Whiteheaded Boy continues through July 3, 2016, at the Adobe Theater, 9813 4th ST. NW in Albuquerque. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. with an additional show Thursday, June 23, at 7:30 p.m. For reservations and information, call 505-898-9222 or visit www.adobetheater.org. The standard general admission price is $17, but the Adobe says on its website that patrons may pay what they will on June 23.