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.
By Karen Isaacs
Finian’s Rainbow which is now at the Irish Rep through January 29 offers theater-goers something unique in today’s day and age. NO BODY MICS!
That’s right, the singers and actors are actually projecting rather than relying on those annoying little “bugs,” cords and lumpy “body battery packs” that have become common.
Of course, the Irish Rep is a relatively small house, but I’ve seen even smaller houses depend on these devices. Can actors and singers not project anymore?
What a joy to hear the unamplified voices, especially when Melissa Errico is one of those; she has a lovely soprano voice that wraps itself around the melodies and lyrics by Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg.
This classic musical of the late 1940s, somehow seems very au courant in today’s environment. After all it deplores racism, suspicion of immigrants, environmental concerns and political corruption. It seems ripped from today’s headlines.
Finian has emigrated from Ireland with his daughter, Sharon (Errico) to Rainbow Valley in Misatucky. In the small village, the townspeople are living and working harmoniously – both the blacks and the whites despite the Jim Crow environment all around them. They work the land to grow tobacco but Senator Rawkins and his cronies want to run them off the land and take it over, to sell it to a corporation. They claim that the residents haven’t paid the taxes and thus the land is to be auctioned off. The town’s people are waiting for the return of Woody who they are convinced will save them
But Finian has a secret. When he left Ireland he stole a pot of gold from a leprechaun and he’s buried it in the town. That leads to Og, a leprechaun showing up to reclaim the gold; until he does, he slowly becomes more and more human.
The plot is conventional; Woody and Sharon fall in love, Og becomes human and rather likes it, the corrupt officials are defeated and everyone lives happily ever after.
What has made this show a classic is the music and lyrics and the sly political satire which is reflected in the clever lyrics by Harburg. “When the Idle Poor become the Idle Rich” points out that the perception of behaviors and actions are very different based on the economic status of the individual; if a wealthy person womanizes, “he’s a man about town,” while if it is a poor man, “he’s a bounder, he’s a rounder, he’s a rotter and a lot of dirty names.”
It also shows up when the Senator is turned black because of a wish made near the hidden pot of gold. Although initially horrified, he ends up part of a quartet and has his eyes opened to the racism all around him that he has perpetuated.
Then of course, there is the humor of Og as he slowly becomes aware of his humanness and begins to like it. It culminates with “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” which goes on to say “I love the girl that’s near.”
This is not a new production directed by Charlotte Moore, the artistic director. She first adapted the show (to a smaller cast) and directed it in 2004, at that time with Errico and Malcolm Gets as Og. It was a hit and had a run at Westport Country Playhouse.
This is a pared down version – the cast is just 13 which includes the four principals. The set by James Morgan is also simpler, but that does not mean it is not very effective. The same can be said of the costumes by David Toser. Mary Jo Dondlinger has created wonderful lighting effects to at time cast the stage in pastel hues of blue and gold.
Barry McNabb has done fine choreography for Susan-the-Silent, Woody’s sister who does not speak but dances her comments. He is aided by Lyrica Woodruff who graduated from the American Ballet Theater School in New York.
Errico is fine in this role that she knows very well; she is able to find the humor in the lines and create a believable character. Ken Jennings plays Finian with sly humor. Let’s forget that he looks too old to have a 20-something daughter, and is so small that he looks like an elf. Ryan Silverman is Woody; he is earnest, has a fine singing voice and yet the connection with Sharon is never believable. It is almost as though he lacks some charisma.
The real fine in this production is Mark Evans as Og. This British actor is making his New York debut though he did appear in the national tour of The Book of Mormon among some other credits. But he has a long series of musical credits in England. He creates an Og that is by turns confused and enchanted by human ways. Evans is someone that I want to see again.
The remainder of the cast is excellent from Dewey Caddell as Rawkins to the various townspeople – Kimberly Doreen Burns, William Bellamy, Matt Gibson, Angela grovey,, Ramone Owens and Kyle Taylor Parker.
So for a delightful experience, see Finian’s Rainbow at the Irish Repertory Theater, 132 W. 22nd St. through January 29. For tickets visit Irish Rep.