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Theatre Review by Marc Miller - January 21, 2024

Danielle Ryan and Tim Ruddy
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Said my companion as we exited Aristocrats: "It's The Cherry Orchard meets Three Sisters." Not quite, but Brian Friel's 1979 drama, in revival at Irish Repertory Theatre, does have a heavy layer of Chekhovian irony weighing it down. That, plus Friel's usual concerns with Irish culture, the Irish class system, and, in this case, the devolution of the Irish Catholic elite. It's a well-made play, as are all the Friels, and blessed with his customary rich language. But, never having seen this one before, I have questions.

For starters: What are we to make of Casimir (Tom Holcomb)? He's one of the half-dozen O'Donnells populating Charlie Corcoran's too-modest set, a study overlooking the lawn of the moldering O'Donnell manse. Casimir is fortyish, affable, and eager to please–but, and it's his own word, "peculiar." He's unskilled and living mostly off the spoils of the O'Donnell dynasty, given to sudden attacks of laughter or tears and forever phoning a wife and three sons in Frankfurt that none of the family seems to have met. "I'm vigorously heterosexual," he assures everyone at one awkward point, but one wonders. This is a tough role to pull off, and Holcomb gives his all, but we never entirely understand Casimir. Maybe we're not supposed to.

Casimir is back in Ballybeg for a wedding: His moody younger sister Claire (Meg Hennessey), an accomplished pianist specializing in Chopin, is about to marry a much older widower with four young kids. It's not clear why. Also present: Alice (Sarah Street), Claire's and Casimir's glib and very alcoholic sister; Judith (Danielle Ryan), the other sister, an overworked nursemaid to their rapidly deteriorating father (Colin Lane); Eamon (Tim Ruddy), who married, above his station, Alice; and the siblings' Uncle George (Lane again), superannuated, nattily attired, and utterly silent, given to wandering the estate and avoiding everyone else. Willie (Shane McNaughton), a handyman who may also be a slot machine tycoon–more Friel ambiguity–is installing a speaker in the study to help Judith monitor her father's needs; it only becomes audible when dramatically convenient. Finally, there's Tom (Roger Dominic Casey), a visitor from Chicago, on hand to research "Recurring cultural, political and social modes in the upper strata of Roman Catholic society in rural Ireland since the act of Catholic Emancipation." Let's hope his paper is more succinct than its title.

Tom's not exactly a narrator–Friel, happily, keeps the fourth wall firmly anchored–but he's the one who brings out the O'Donnell history, interviewing the family members. It's a noble patriarchy, stretching from chief justice to circuit court judge to district justice to solicitor, but a love of the drink goes with it. And Casimir, the most enthusiastic and loquacious interviewee, is also the least reliable, relaying family encounters with Yeats, Chopin and others that aren't likely to have happened. With such dynasties, Friel seems to be saying, the diligence and industriousness of previous generations get watered down with time, and what's left are useless progeny leading frivolous lives. Exhibit A: a scene of Casimir crawling around on the lawn. He's looking for pairs of holes that once housed croquet posts, and when he finds all seven, he challenges Claire to a croquet match–with imaginary balls and mallets. Friel's character motivations can tend toward the obscure.

The Chekhov references pile up: the prospect of a loveless union, the need to dispose of the estate, the failed romances (at least two, both involving Judith), and Claire bears more than a passing resemblance to both Masha and Irina. And odd things happen along the way. Alice, falling-down-drunk before intermission, sobers up in Act Two, and she's so transformed she barely seems the same character. An illegitimate offspring mentioned in passing early on proves to have great plot consequences. More than once, when the conversation among some characters becomes too serious, the others counter with a torrent of small talk, the better to stall impending doom. Did I call this a well-made play? Maybe a little less well made than other Friels.

The accents are all over the place, running from deep Hibernian (McNaughton) to New Jersey (Holcomb), and so's the acting. Top honors surely go to Ruddy, who makes us trust and understand Eamon, an astute critic of the pretensions and deceptions all about him. The character's not always likable, but the actor is. Street overdoes Alice's anger, and if there's a way to coherently merge sober Alice and snockered Alice, she hasn't figured it out. The well-cast Hennessey conveys Claire's gentleness and passivity, and Ryan allows us to empathize with the sorry lot dealt to Judith. Casey's Tom barely registers, admittedly in a role that's little more than a device.

David Toser's costumes evoke the hideousness of mid-1970s fashion, and he's certainly given Lane's Uncle George a dapper ensemble to wander about in. Director Charlotte Moore, usually so astute at bringing out the finer points of Friel, doesn't, at least not for me. As usual with Irish Rep, you'll be better prepared for the evening by arriving early and consuming the glossary and extensive program notes, which dwell on Ireland's changing fortunes in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the Chekhovian parallels visible in so much Friel, and especially here. This is a capable staging of a middling Friel opus, but I do hope the next in Irish Rep's Friel Project, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, socks its messages across with more clarity.

Through March 3, 2024
Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage, 132 West 22nd Street
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