Anita Reeves and Stephen Brennan star in These Halcyon Days
It seems that the most vital voices in Irish playwriting currently belong to women. For proof stop by the Irish Arts Center in New York this weekend and catch 'These Halcyon Days' by Deirdre Kinahan.
A lovely, understated marvel about life and loss and finding the courage to keep on going, it features pitch perfect performances by the two leads, Anita Reeves and Stephen Brennan.
Set in a nursing home (Kinahan’s dramatic instinct takes her to places other writers avoid), we meet the elderly Sean, who has essentially been abandoned by his loved ones, dropped off and completely forgotten. Into his life bursts Patricia, a fiercely funny woman of a certain age who quickly becomes his friend and confidant.
It startles me to say this, but there’s more humanity and smarts in one scene of Kinahan’s new play than I’ve witnessed in the last 10 years of contemporary playwriting by Irish men. I don’t know why this is.
All I know for certain is that within the first 10 minutes of 'These Halcyon Days' I could tell with certainty that I was in the presence of gifted theater makers with a clear passion for their craft and its undeniable power to move you.
As Patricia, Reeves serves up a gale of scalding sarcasm that’s a mask to hide the heart of a lion lurking underneath. Her character wins us over from the first time she rolls her eyes at the mortifying conditions of the nursing home she’s been reluctantly delivered to.
Reeves let’s us see a woman in full, conveying Patricia’s spirit and courage, as well as her anger and disbelief at the circumstances she finds herself in.
But crucially she also shows us her completely intact sense of humor and the real tenderness that’s awoken by her brief flirtation with the handsome man in the wheelchair who quickly becomes her confidant.
As Sean, Brennan seems to be entirely composed of charm and a degree of gentleness that would beguile anyone. You can see why Patricia’s smitten with him from their first meeting. That awareness also makes the heartlessness and cruelty of his abandonment ring true, particularly in an island where institutional neglect or abuse achieved the level of an epidemic.
Sean, it turns out, has been a celebrated actor all his life, but now his West End triumphs and his cinema work are all behind him. Now he subsists on his memories of happier times as he struggles and increasingly fails to stop an imprisoning fear of the future, with its almost certain unhappy end, paralyzing him further.
There’s so much depth to the scenario that Kinahan has created that this play could easily stretch far beyond its 70 or so minutes. As it is she focuses on the biggest questions of all, the fate of love and the darkness that haunts the edges of all our lives. She’s unflinching in her gaze.
David Horan’s direction is economical and uncluttered. Like the playwright, he allows the richly detailed characterizations to carry the play. A scene where Patricia and Sean have an impromptu waltz as he remembers the “Shall We Dance?” number from 'The King and I' is worth the ticket price alone.
We haven’t had a playwright with this much faith in character as the basis for a story for quite a number of years. That’s what makes the performances of the two leads so particularly powerful.
What underscores Kinahan’s achievement in 'These Halcyon Days' is that it springs authentically from Irish life. By being so particular it becomes universal. But there’s a special joy in seeing carefully crafted characterizations on the Irish stage after years of near pantomime levels of misanthropy or snark.
There is a scene where the blossoming friendship between Patricia and (she has yet to discover the discreetly gay) Sean gives her back all the hope and possibility that life can still offer. In that moment you can clearly see the face of an expectant young girl emerge on the experienced woman’s face.
It’s because 'These Halcyon Days' has found the most ideal actors it could possibly have asked for that the play contains completely unforgettable moments like these. Go and see it and be moved by a perfect production of a funny and unsettling play.