“Quietly” at the Irish Rep Explores the Aftermath of Violence

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Declan Conlon, Robert Zawadzki, Patrick O’Kane. Photo by James Higgins

 Dublin’s famous Abbey Theatre is making an appearance in New York under the auspices of The Irish Repertory Theatre and the Public Theater with their production of Quietly is running through Sept. 25. This contemporary play by Owen McCafferty, a fine playwright who deserves more productions in the U.S.

It is Belfast, Ireland – a city where “the troubles” exploded in the ‘70s and ’80 as Catholics and Protestants faced constant fights, bombings and mayhem. Young people, particularly young men, were caught up in the religious hatred; many innocent people died. In 1984 Sinn Fein and the British government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher forged a “sort of” solution and truce.  While it did not totally end the problems, it greatly reduced them. But it left a residue of ill will and regrets. In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement brought even more peace, though not necessarily reconciliation.

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Patrick O’Kane. Photo by James Higgins

Quietly is set in a pub in Belfast in the present time. The owner and bar keep is Robert, a Polish émigré who had been a bartender back in his native land. The pub is empty with a soccer match on the telly, but soon a regular, Jimmy, arrives. He’s in his early 50s and is the type of man you instinctively feel you do not want to anger or meet in a dark alley.  Bald, somewhat beefy, there is a smoldering rage in him that seems ready to explode at any moment.  He tells Robert that he is waiting for someone and he warns him that it might get angry, possibly violent and to stay out of the way.

So we are set up to expect an explosion. But when Ian enters quietly, casually but well dressed, we may feel that violence will be avoided.

Ian is the same age as Jimmy and on a fateful day in 1974, in this very area, their lives intertwined; both were 16 and on different sides of “the troubles.” Each had been brought up to hate the other’s religion and therefore the people who practice it. In this very pub something happened (I won’t reveal the details) that turned both of them into victims.  Each bears scars from that day; it is safe to say neither life was every the same again.

Ian wants to get the past behind him and feels the need to meet Jimmy and possibly explain and ask forgiveness. In today’s psychobabble, we would say he wants “closure.”

But is closure possible? Can forgiveness be granted? Can such ingrained hatreds ever be extinguished?

Even as the two meet, shout, talk and listen, there are roving bands of teenagers – like they were long ago – doing violence.

The tension in this play comes from their stories as well as Jimmy’s temper which you feel may snap at any second. Each has pent up emotions.

Ian has perhaps processed the experiences better than Jimmy.  He has come to realize that it was the adults who recruited and indoctrinated the boys at a young age, and who often gave them the nastiest jobs. They were like the child soldiers we hear about in foreign countries. How could they really understand the issues, the hatreds or the consequences of what they were asked to do?

This is a taut, 75 minute play that leaves you drained. Certainly in our present environment, it causes you to think about how young people are recruited and used by adults for a variety of political and even terrorist purposes; how hatred continues for generations; and that the victims are often the very young men who were left with deep wounds.

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Declan Conlon. Photo by James Higgins

The ending is realistic – no a “feel good” everyone will love each other and be best buds, but at least a little more understanding of the other’s point of view. Conversation has begun, and just as in another play I recently saw, Oslo, conversation and personal relationships are a key to resolving these long standing hostilities.

The acting is superb. Robert Zawadzki plays Robert. While he mostly listens and watches the two his story enhances the play. Since coming to Belfast his life hasn’t gone as he would have wished: he is still bartender though now apparently an owner and his wife seems to want to return to Poland. Plus, with the occasional violence occurring he and his pub are convenient targets.

Patrick O’Kane gives us a menacing Jimmy. I instinctively wanted to back away from him. Yet in the concluding minutes, you also see the pain that the event in 1974 caused him; he has not been able to move beyond that event which is clear as he graphically describes it.

Declan Conlon is the quieter Ian. He too is scared but his anger has receded and he has gained insight into himself and the situations.

This is a forceful and moving play that thoroughly engaged me. Certainly director Jimmy Fay must be congratulated for the taut and fine direction.

As too often happens nowadays in the theater, during the last climatic ten minutes, the cell phone of the woman in front of me rang and she fumbled for it before turning it off, but added insult to injury by then whispering to neighbor. I lost a minute or two of Jimmy’s final speech much to my annoyance.

Go see Quietly at the Irish Rep, 132 West 22nd St., New York City. For tickets call 212-727-2737 or visit irishrep.org.

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Photo by James Higgins


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