The Sanctuary Lamp
O'Reilly, along with set designer J. Michael Griggs and lighting designer John Malinowski, turn these liabilities into assets. The set is constructed of materials suggesting a once grand Gothic style cathedral now fallen on hard times and fills the cavernous space in a way that serves to underscore the empty souls of those who inhabit it.
First we meet the Monsignor (Jackson Royal), who'd rather be in his easy chair reading Hermann Hesse than on duty at his underutilized church, and Harry (Nigel Gore), a circus strongman seeking shelter - and maybe some comfort - from life's recent blows. The Monsignor picks up that Harry is at loose ends and expediently offers him the vacant clerk's position. The job entails recording any requests in the unlikely chance a parishioner should stop by, seeing to the necessary locking of the doors and, most importantly, tending the candle in the sanctuary lamp which hangs prominently from the ceiling in front of the alter.
Left alone, Harry takes a fancy to the notion that the flame represents the presence of Christ and, not withstanding the fact that he's a Jew, engages in animated conversation with the red globe overhead. Before we get too caught up in his misfortunes, however, the 15-year-old runaway who slipped in unnoticed to use the W.C. makes herself known. Maudie (Stacy Fischer) has an equally sad, if slightly more predictable, tale to tell and soon the two of them are making plans to stay on together as nighttime squatters.
They have no qualms about turning the confessional on its side to make a pair of cozy bunks, wrapping up in the priest's vestments for warmth and eating fish and chips on the alter. When Harry's circus compatriot Francisco (Aidan Parkinson) shows up, he eggs them on by breaking out the altar wine and railing against the institution of the Church from the pulpit.
When first staged by Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1975, this play caused a furor; but given the Church's current travails in Boston - and elsewhere - the things said and done here seem tame by comparison. Setting aside the elements of shock and controversy has its advantages, however, permitting the lovely constructs of Murphy's language and the gut-wrenching spiritual desperation of the characters - especially in the hands of Gore and Fischer - to rise to the surface for our undivided attention.
There are some downsides. Just as we become engaged with the plight of one character, another arrives on the scene to beg for our attention. Maudie is underwritten and pretty much cast aside once her story's been told. And Francisco's arrival so late to the party, combined with his having an Irish accent requiring us to work a little harder, makes it tougher to engage with him.
One thing this production has definitely given me is an appreciation for Tom Murphy, considered to be the finest of living Irish playwrights, though little known outside his own country. A contemporary of the more accessible Brian Friel, he's the progenitor of Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. This play, however, with its urban setting and not the least bit folksy characters, puts one most in mind of a gritty contemporary Irish film, which says a lot about a 30-year old play.
The Sanctuary Lamp now through February 26th in the Roberts Studio Theatre of the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston. Performances are 8pm Wednesday through Saturday, 4pm on Saturdays and 3pm on Sundays. Tickets are $38 for Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees; $34 at all other times. To purchase tickets visit the box office at the Calderwood Pavilion, open daily from 12pm to 6pm and on performance evenings until 30 minutes after the latest curtain. Tickets are also available by phone (617) 933-8600 or online: www.BostonTheatreScene.com. Seniors receive a $5 discount, and student rush tickets are $15 (cash only) at the box office 2 hours before curtain, subject to availability.
Additional programming note:
Concurrent with the run of The Sanctuary Lamp, The Súgán Theatre, in partnership with Wild Geese Productions, is presenting Plays agus Pints, a series of staged readings of new plays by local Irish-American playwrights followed by drinks afterwards at the Jurys Doyle Hotel bar on Berkeley Street. The schedule for the next three Tuesday evenings is: Patrick's Parade by Judith McIntyre on February 8th, Searching for Certainty by Mike O'Malley on February 15th and God Willing by Dave McLaughlin on February 22nd. No tickets or reservations are required; simply show up by 7:45 and ask for a free ticket at the BCA Box Office window.