By Karen Isaacs
Brian Friel’s The Home Place, now at the Irish Rep through December 17, looks at a period of upheaval in Irish history, 1878. Once more the cause of independence has been rising to the surface with new leaders and movement called “New Departure.” Home rule was the goal. British landowners are a target and a symbol of British domination of the country.
The play, the last Friel wrote, takes place during a single day – the day of the funeral of Lord Lifford, an English landlord, hated by the Irish who has been mysteriously murdered. It is set in Friel’s often-used, semi-mythical town of Ballybeg in County Donegal.
Christopher Gore, played touchingly by John Windsor-Cunningham, is an English widower who has lived most of his life on his estate in Ballybeg. Yet he also speaking lovingly of the time he spent in Kent, England and where he went to school. He lives mostly alone in the house with Margaret, the head housekeeper, a youngish local woman whose father is the school master and choirmaster in the town. Christopher’s son, David also lives there, seeing to the land.
On the day of the funeral, Christopher’s nephew, Richard Gore is visiting with his assistant, Perkins. Richard is a scientist, apparently well-known who is there in order to conduct some scientific explorations. He works in the fields of craniology and phrenology, which are the science of the shapes of heads. He believes that by measuring numerous of aspects of the skull, one can determine the ethnic background of an individual and his or her character.
Phrenology and craniology were popular from the later 1700s to the mid-1800s and then were revived in the early part of the 20th century. Today, is a discredited as a “pseudo-science.” But it had many adherents who believed skull shape and size affected brain size and that specific areas of the brain were responsible for character, thoughts and emotions.
Christopher has encouraged his tenants to come to be measured. While Richard thinks the reward should be only the photograph his assistant takes of them, Christopher, who views himself as a benevolent landholder, offers them more. No one disputes that he is benevolent, yet there is a growing group of people who want to reclaim land they view as theirs.
Among these are the maid Sally and her boyfriend, Johnny, who is the local man for the agitator Con who is also there.
The Home Place is a study of contrasts. Richard has little respect for the Irish while Christopher views them as humans towards whom he has warm feelings. After all he basically grew up in Ballybeg. Christopher who is aging, longs to go back to England which he sometimes refers to as “the home place” – he has spent most of his life in Ireland, so he also feels a connection to it and the people. So which is his “home place?” He also is a contrast to the murdered Lord Lifford who was viewed as harsh and unforgiving.
Other contrasts abound. His son, David seems more a man of the land than the refined Christopher but they are both drawn to Margaret. Just after we see a rendezvous between Margaret and David, Christopher announces his desire to marry her, primarily you think because he is lonely.
A recurrent element of the play is music – Margaret’s father leads a well-respected choir which we sometimes hear. While he may drink excessively, he is also an educated man who teaches school and admires Irish poetry.
The play ends with Christopher siding with his fellow Ballybeg residents over his kin, but with increasing awareness that his time in Ireland is limited.
The Home Place is beautifully directed by Charlotte Moore, the Irish Rep’s Artistic Director. She has a fine cast to work with including Rachel Pickup as Margaret, John Windsor-Cunningham as Christopher and Ed Malone as David. Christopher Randolph has the job of trying to make the supercilious Richard understandable and Stephen Pilkington provides some comic moments as his assistant Perkins.
The least developed characters are Con and Johnny, played by Johnny Hopkins (Con) and Gordon Tashjian (Johnny).
James Noone has provided a set that features the garden of the house. The lighting by Michael Gottlieb is excellent.
The Home Place is another fascinating play by one of Ireland’s best playwrights.
For tickets visit The Irish Rep or call 212-727-2737.