In Irish playwright Brian Friel's uncharacteristically furious drama The Freedom of the City, now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York, the long and tragic conflict between Ireland and Britain is presented as lucidly as you're ever likely to see.
It begins in 1970 when three Nationalist civil rights protesters, all strangers to each other, find themselves unwittingly taking shelter in the very seat of Unionist power at the time, the 19th century Guildhall in the center of Derry.
Still reeling from the riots outside and choking from the clouds of tear gas, it takes them minutes before they realize what a potentially dangerous turn they've taken. For young Skinner (Joseph Sikora) it's a hilarious discovery, because it's the last place on earth he ever expected to find himself.
For middle aged Lily (Cara Seymour) a working class mother of 11, it's just a welcome opportunity to catch her breath and put her feet up after a long march. But for the studious young Michael (James Russell) it's a political mistake that he wants to rectify by high-tailing it before they're discovered.
Friel began The Freedom of the City in 1972, several months before Bloody Sunday, and he amended the script to reflect the notorious political whitewash of the Widgery Commission that followed it, which saw none of the British soldiers who opened fire on unarmed protestors in Derry brought to trial or even disciplined.
It's the Irish Rep's 25th anniversary season and director Ciaran O'Reilly has chosen an immensely provocative and still all too timely script. The Freedom of the City takes the civil rights struggle as its starting point, but Friel has a much more ambitious artistic intent than to outline the developing conflict. He sees far beyond the sectarian strife to its economic roots, which challenges everything about the divided society that produced it.
Through Skinner, Lily and Michael, Friel introduces us to the hardscrabble Derry community that produced them. Then he adds another layer through characters that personify the church, the state and the revolutionary socialism that challenges their domination.
What's marvelous about the play, and why it richly deserves this handsome revival, is how nimbly Friel portrays all the various elements clamoring for a hearing.
Skinner, Lily and Michael were only looking for a place to take refuge, but suddenly the building they took shelter in is surrounded by the British Army. To the agents of the state they're not protestors, they're terrorists.
To the citizens of Derry they're not unfortunates caught up in unexpected circumstances, they're brave IRA volunteers and patriots. To the news crews setting up outside they're a gripping story. To the Unionist government they're a political affront.
You can see where this is going early on, and it's nowhere good. But as Friel paints a backdrop of menace he simultaneously gives his three protagonists blazing life.
It's quite a trick that, one that only a master playwright like himself could pull off. Sikora, Seymour and Russell all rise to the challenge of the script with performances that are so nuanced that they quietly steal up on you as the play progresses.
The Freedom of the City is an angry play, made all the more so by the tragic failure of the warring factions to countenance their share humanity, or concede an inch of ideological ground. But Friel makes it even harder on the audience by underlining just how important the economic roots of the conflict are (and still remain).
When you're raised in poverty you live in a continual present that denies you the luxury of foresight, or the insight of reflection. Friel even brings a sociologist (Christa Scott-Reid) on stage to underline his points and link the Irish civil rights struggle to the global one of oppressed underclasses quietly waking from a decades long slumber and howling in anger over the deprivations they have suffered.
That struggle is far from over, as O'Reilly reminds us in this fast paced production. Church and divided state still lay claim to their discreetly garrisoned communities in the North, although a new atmosphere of cooperation and openness has finally taken root.
Had the peace process not taken root so deeply this play and this production would have been incredibly difficult to watch. As it stands its a marker of how far we've come, and how little we have changed in the interim.
The Freedom of the City runs until November 25 at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Visit www.irishrep.org for tickets and showtimes.
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