With his new play "The Cambria" at the Irish Arts Center in New York having concluded its run on Sunday, playwright and actor Donal O’Kelly steps to the front line of contemporary Irish playwrights. In fact, in terms of the play’s theatrical skill and thematic ambition, he already has his contemporaries beat. 

O’Kelly’s subtle and moving play about the African-American ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ voyage to Ireland in 1845, co-starring Sorcha Fox, could easily have been a deadly dull sermon about the need to protect universal human rights.  But in O’Kelly’s hands it instead becomes an absorbing meditation on what makes us human, what connects us to each other and what tears us apart.

The production, directed by Raymond Keane, is nimble and evocative, conjuring a ship on the open seas and all the male and female passengers who populate it. Fox is especially good at these transformations between roles, playing male and female charachters so convincingly that you’ll be swept up by the storyline from start to finish.

The play’s plot is as interesting as its theatrical presentation. The year is 1845, and the 30-year-old famed abolitionist Douglass is sailing for Europe aboard a ship called the Cambria, fleeing the hostile forces in the United States determined to halt his call for the end of slavery in the southern states.

A former slave himself, Douglass knew the fate that awaited him in America and decided to take his abolitionist message to Europe to enlist its help.  

Visiting Ireland for the first time, he was astonished to receive a hero’s welcome from vast crowds of sympathetic, long-suffering Irish Catholics familiar with his career and his recently published autobiography.  The Irish liberator Daniel O’Connell himself arrives in Cork — then known as Queenstown — to welcome Douglass at the dock. 

O’Kelly is aware of the potent overlaps between racial and colonial oppression, but he does not belabor his points.  Instead he simply lets them emerge to often devastating theatrical effect. 

Douglass spent six months in Ireland, where he was welcomed far and wide as the so-called Black O’Connell, a liberator of a different but equally important kind, and the heartfelt welcome of the local people gave him the morale boost he needed to continue his crusade in the United States. 

Although "The Cambria" recounts the basic details of Douglass’ visit to Ireland, it’s all the happenings aboard ship while it’s at sea that fuel the drama. It helps that both O’Kelly and especially Fox are gifted actors. They bring to life a thronging cast of charachters with impressive ease. 

O’Kelly has an ear for irony and an eye for complexity, both particularly well suited to the subject and the heroic soul his play celebrates. This also seems to be the year of the prodigiously gifted Irish actress (after Maxine Linehan’s turn in The Mushroom Pickers in February comes Fox’s turn in "The Cambria"). Fox’s concentration, her physical poise and her pitch perfect accent work make her one of the most impressive Irish actors this reviewer has ever seen. 

One of the play’s joys is the obvious pleasure O’Kelly the writer takes in crafting terrific lines for O’Kelly the actor. “Never been at sea? You must have been mighty contented with your life on land,” says a ship’s captain, unforgettably. 

“Beware the Quaker choir ladies,” is another of the captain’s bon mots. The play’s subject may be immensely serious, but at all times O’Kelly knows how to entertain. 

On board ship we meet a little white girl, the daughter of a southern slave owner who cannot conceive of Douglass as anything other than a minstrel. It’s this inability, small enough in itself perhaps, that says more about the ingrained societal prejudice Douglass was fighting in America more than any other image in the play. 

The girl’s slaveholder father, played with a Dick Cheney-like sneer by O’Kelly, is the least interesting and most casually monstrous person in the play. It’s horrible and timely that the old reprobate cites the Constitution as a way to prolong exploitation rather than end it.

"The Cambria" also presents a dilemma for theater going audiences. The Irish may once have greeted Douglass with open arms, but nowadays he would more likely be greeted with a holding cell in a Irish dispersal center, with few to no chances of being granted asylum. Progress is made in one area, but comes slower in others.