Edna O'Brien's Family Butchers is a Real Irish Dysfunctional Family Drama
Family Butchers takes place in the 1970s in a run-down Georgian country house called Kincora, named after the stronghold of the mythic Irish High King, Brian Boru. It is a time of uneasy social unrest between the old and new ways of Irish life. The title is also a pun since in the UK, people say "have a butchers" which means to "have a good look." This play is about a wild dysfunctional company that is trying to have a "good look" from brutish father Jamie (Robertson Dean) and pious mother Lil (Esther Mulligan) to their full grown siblings at a family reunion to celebrate the elder O'Sheas' wedding anniversary. The children come from afar to be with their parents on this auspicious day. This family is a more psychological scarred group of siblings than the Tyrone family in Long Day's Journey Into Night. Some of the characters border almost on caricature rather than human beings.
Edna O'Brien, who has been called by London critics "the playgirl of the Western world," has devised a drama full of hidden terrors, hidden dangers and secrets held in the dark. She wants the play to be "Chekhovian" but I feel it is more like a minor King Lear. The fearsome father of the clan is written with a heavy hand and there is too little known about the others for the narrative to gather an interest. You really don't know what has motivated these siblings to become such worried characters.
Emer (Anne Francisco Worden) is the first to arrive at her parents' door. She is a well known romantic novelist (supposedly patterned after the playwright herself) and appears nervous to return, but has a need to see her father. We get the impression that their relationship had been incestuous when she was a child. This is never brought out, however. Peg (Patricia Miller), the older daughter, arrives from South Africa. She is an outspoken and vain individual who needs to borrow some money from Dad.
Teddy (Mark Phillips) and his wife Carmel (Laura Hope) arrive next. Teddy is a caricature of the typical "braggart" who tries to be the life of the party but fails miserably. He is a milquetoast to his ineffective and dominating wife who is not even Irish. He constantly calls his wife syrupy names to an almost sickening effect. The last to enter is the oldest bitter sister Helen (Joan Harris-Gelb) who has stayed on the farm with her brood of kids to take care of the elderly parents. Also in this weird mix is Gurnet (Ian Scott McGregor), a local friend of the father. This young man does not have all of his marbles and talks like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He even sort looks like him.
All of the children are looking for something in the way of money since they believe the father, who was a cattle baron and landowner, has money to spare. Peg never received a dowry when she married and believes she should have one now even though her husband is in South Africa. Teddy, who is no farmer and is a weak individual motivated by Carmel, wants the father to give him the farm when he passes away. Helen has stayed on and firmly believes she should inherit the farm. But father Jamie is counting on asking his children for money to keep him from going further into debt. It's a vicious circle. Emer is not looking for money but maybe to become closer to her childhood life in the house. Gurnet does not have the brains to want anything.
Family Butcher has scenes that go by rapidly and every emotion known to the Irish are thrown into this uneven drama that lacks Chekhov's invention. There is not enough time to flesh out the sibling characters. Some scenes are just thrown in, and people enter and exit on a whim, which destroys the movement of the drama. There are some scenes that are vibrant, such as a confrontation between Jamie and son Teddy, plus some scenes involving the strange relationship between Jamie and his wife Lil. They are like "chalk and cheese" together.
Dean Robertson (leading actor of LA's acclaimed classical rep "A Noise Within" plus appearing in many films) plays Jamie the harsh father. He plays it as the least loveable father since King Lear and is excellent in showing Jamie's mood swings, going from recalling his long ago triumph at a singing contest to his loving and somewhat erotic touch of his daughter Emer when they are looking at a doll house straight out of Tiny Alice. He is a heavy drinker of the Irish whisky and becomes a Mr. Hyde when the spirits hit him. It is a tour de force of brilliant acting.
Anne Francisco Worden (acted with Shakespeare Santa Cruz) is effective as an uneasy, wanting to please and very self-effacing popular writer of romantic fiction. She seems like a stray lamb in the company of wolves. Patricia Miller as Peg is dressed in an outfit that looks like something from a '30s musical staring Sophie Tucker. She plays the character as a loud mouth plainspoken woman very well. Esther Mulligan (worked with various Bay Area companies) as the mother Lil and Joan Harris-Gelb (Heartbreak House and Time of Your Life) as the elder daughter Helen play their roles skillfully, constantly looking with stern expressions at the group.
Mark Phillips (many appearances in Bay Area including Stones in His Pockets and True West) seems to go over the top as a braggart. He blusters very well and then changes to being a milquetoast to his wife Carmel played competently by Laura Hope (American in Me). She plays the role as a whiny little "bitch." Rounding out this array of talent is Ian Scott McGregor (The Opposite of Sex, 3F, 4F and 13 Hallucinations) as the crude friend of Jamie is first rate in the role.
Kate Edmunds has devised one of the busiest sets I have seen for a small stage. It looks like it should be on the stage of the Curran. This is a living room that has seen better times, with a dirty window looking out on a rain-soaked landscape, monotonous plaster walls and curtains that have not been cleaned in ages. Even the furniture is sagging. There is a detailed little anteroom in the back where the actors occasionally disappear.
Paul Whitworth directs this uneven play, presenting us with fast moving scene changes that seem disjointed at times. Even the last scene, which takes one year later, lacks coherence with the rest of the play.
Family Butcher runs through October 23rd at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.
Their next production is the world premiere of Mat Smart's The Hopper Collection.