Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 27, 2022
Walking With Ghosts by Gabriel Byrne. Directed by Lonny Price. Scenic and lighting design by Sinéad McKenna. Costume design by Joan O'Clery. Sound design and original music by Sinéad Diskin. Associate director Matt Cowart.
Drawn from Byrne's published book of the same title and efficiently directed by Lonny Price, the production is divided into two one-hour acts, with a 15-minute intermission between them. Each act, then, consists of short scenes, in which Byrne recounts some incident from his life, so that the sum of the parts is an increasingly rich portrait of someone we know only through his public successes.
While the title talks about "ghosts," we are not in the realm of, say, Conor McPherson, the Irish playwright who specializes in ghost stories of the more traditional kind in such works as The Weir. Byrne uses the term "ghosts" to mean his memories. And though they may haunt him the way memories can, and no matter how much he puts into using his acting talents and disarming Irish lilt to draw us in, those memories are far more meaningful to him than they ever will be to us. Even the most troublesome ones, the death of a childhood friend, his sister's mental illness, or an assault by a pedophile priest, can only bring out a sympathetic response from the strangers sitting before him.
Whether by design or without conscious intent, it does seem, particularly in the first half, that the man who admits to having been "socially awkward and anxious" and of "struggling with authenticity" does fall back into the safety of hiding behind his actorly mode, especially when he recounts stories of his childhood or makes a performance out of imitating his parents, friends and neighbors. In this type of show, such a presentation style only manages to distance us from Byrne, however entertaining he makes his delivery.
Things do perk up in the second act, however. The mask slips away when Byrne talks about his life as an actor and what that world has meant to him after failed careers as an apprentice plumber, dishwasher, and bathroom attendant. Here at last he is telling us something we don't know, about his early work in amateur theatrics, his gradual rise in the field, the problems he had getting acting roles in England "apart from priests and drunks and terrorists," and his later successes. More, it is his discovery of a world that took him in and accepted him unconditionally. Possibly the best line he utters the entire evening is this one: "I realized I had been so lonely, and this new sense of belonging and purpose overwhelmed me to tears. You are welcome here, they had said. Welcome."
These later anecdotes fascinate because they are more uniquely his than the universal tales of the joys and miseries of childhood that we could all get up there and talk about. Happily, Byrne is not much prone to name-dropping, and even the stories of his drinking days with Richard Burton are used to lead us into gaining some insight into Byrne's battle with alcoholism. If only the entire evening held the honesty and directness of the latter part of the performance, we could count Walking With Ghosts as a terrific evening of theatergoing. But what we are presented with, even as it is sparkled with Sinéad McKenna's supportive lighting design and Sinéad Diskin's original music and sound design, is both too much and not enough, a two-hour discourse that would best be appreciated by fans of the actor.