In "Quietly," playwright Owen McCafferty’s riveting new play about the long shadow cast by 'the Troubles,' Jimmy (Patrick O'Kane) and Ian (Declan Conlon) are two Belfast men in their fifties who arrange to meet for the first time to talk about a day in 1974 when they were both 16, which has marked – and maimed – their lives.
From the moment they appear onstage the tension between the two is palpable, and it's carefully maintained by director Jimmy Fay as their stories slowly start to emerge.
The pub in which the two men are sitting in 2016 was once the scene of an explosion in 1974 that changed both their lives: Jimmy lost his father and Ian was responsible for the attack. First meetings rarely get more dramatic.
“What Owen's doing very powerfully in this play is asking, how do you make peace?” Jimmy Fay, 45, the Dublin-born executive producer of Belfast's Lyric Theatre told our sister publication the Irish Voice.
“He's taken two ideologically opposed people, one of whom has committed a horrendous crime back in the seventies when he was a kid that killed six men. The play asks, how do you deal with the guilt? How do you deal with the mayhem he has created in other people's lives?
“If there is a way to make peace, a way to resolve your differences, a way to find forgiveness this is the play to turn to. There's no better play on these themes in my mind.”
So this isn't some kind of esoteric philosophy debate. It's about flesh and blood consequences, because Ian has literally killed Jimmy's father. No wonder the gripping drama has already been a critical and commercial hit in Ireland and Britain.
“It's like an arena where you have these two heavyweights circling each other, you know?” says Fay. “McCafferty has lived in Belfast almost his entire life and he had to deal with all of this. But even now in the North there's always that thing of whatever you say, say nothing.
“There's a politics of ambiguity, because people have learned you can get through things if you're ambiguous, but you can't move forward together.”
That means what Ireland's playwrights are doing is something that Ireland's political class shows less aptitude for: using their skills to have the hard conversations and show some leadership.
“The leadership here gets continually bogged down into tribal politics and into the madness of that,” says Fay, a Dubliner who maintains a southern perspective.
“It's interesting now because everything has suddenly come up again with the Brexit vote, which has made everything a bit scarier, not just in the North but in England and Scotland. What it has done to itself is completely insane.”
The times now call for careful, considered leadership north and south, which is sorely lacking, Fay believes. “What Brexit has done is jeopardize the peace process to a certain extent. In the North you can have a dual identity: if you're a nationalist you're also a European citizen, for example. Take European citizenship away from nationalists and will they suddenly have to declare allegiance to a monarch, you're not going to live with that for too long.”
At the moment the North is still part of Europe which means part of something bigger, but when that gets narrowed down because of Brexit it could make everything just a little bit more frightening. It could bring the problems that "Quietly" discusses back into sharp focus.
It's not just nationalists, either. “I know plenty of unionists who voted against Brexit, who are appalled at the whole thing. I know there are plenty in favor too. But I think there are an awful lot of progressive Protestants we don't necessarily hear about in the Republic,” Fay says.
“There's a lot more ambiguity than is often seen from Dublin or London or New York. I think what has happened with the Brexit vote is that it has left all of these people out on a limb. It's too much to say it’s put the peace in total jeopardy, but it has certainly made dialogue a little bit trickier.”
Knowing how tenuous peace can be, McCafferty doesn't make it easy on his characters or the audience.
“Although they don't shirk from the pain of their past, because it's visible in their bodies, it doesn't get transformed into something else. They don't suddenly announce let's all love each other now,” Fay says.
“They acknowledge that they can't move away from the pain they caused, but they don't fall into the trap of perpetuating revenge. One of them has to make a step forward, a step away from the dead end of violence and nonsense, and realize they have to talk about what happened in new way.”
Theater in the North tends to be political and it deals with legacy issues, Fay explains.
“This is an Abbey production and their artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail has done an extraordinary job reaching out to Ireland, north and south,” he says.
Moving with his wife and seven-year-old son from Dublin to Belfast has provided Fay with an interesting learning curve.
“There's a lot more traditions up there that I had to learn about and become respectful of. There's a lot more than I would have learned about if I'd just stayed in Dublin,” he says.
“I think the North is trying to find its place in the world. Whether that be in an eventual united Ireland or whether that be in a commonwealth, I don't know.”
What he understood early on is how disenfranchised both communities feel in many ways and for many reasons.
“I think they feel abandoned in the North. If you put it to a vote in England tomorrow I'd say they'd vote not to keep it. Brexit made that clear,” Fay says.
“There's no hiding from the xenophobia that's there and England itself will have to look at that going forward. But the North also feels abandoned by the south. We have done very little to try and encourage dialogue. We have left it up to the border counties.
“I don't think we have made the case to incorporate it. I think we're terrified of it. We need to do a lot more reaching out, engaging and dialogue.”
"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake," wrote James Joyce once. It’s the kind of line that comes naturally to an Irish writer because Ireland knows, more than many places, how the past can write both the present and the future before anyone actually living though them can get a word in.
So it proves in "Quietly," as the two men interrupt or contradict each other, finding it almost impossible to sit down and do the thing they actually need to – unburden themselves, describe what happened and what it did to them, then listen to each other and start to change.
“There's one genius device that Owen uses,” Fay explains. “The pub in 'Quietly' is now run by a Polish barman, who listens to these two talk and debate. He doesn't say much until the very end, but he is essential as a witness to what these guys have gone through.”
Part of the job of the theater is to ruffle feathers, even the ones that are closest to your own Fay says, adding that "Quietly" does that.
“I want to find shows that penetrate the audience, that address them where they're living. Most people here really don't want to go to shows about 'the Troubles' unless they're entertaining. That's what I've found,” Fay says.
“They just want to go out and have a good time, but the young writers want to deal with the legacy of the place they actually grew up in. There's that tension between the two impulses that Owen handles so well. 'Quietly' finds a way to pull everyone in. I've seen many plays about 'the Troubles,' but none as good as this.”
"Quietly" plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York beginning July 20. For tickets call 212-727-2737 or visit www.irishrep.org.