Audiences attending the New York debut of Brian Friel's play The Home Place at the Irish Repertory Theatre this month will be moved by the accumulating power of this slow-burn but increasingly unsettling work.
A companion piece to Friel's other famous meditations on the centuries long struggles between Planter and Gael like Freedom of the City and Translations, it's impossible not to cross reference these earlier plays in your head as you watch what unfolds onstage.
It's the summer of 1878 in Donegal and the play opens at the Lodge, the big house owned by the local Anglo Irish landlord Christopher Gore (an ideally cast John Windsor-Cunningham). Christopher and his poignantly preternatural son David (Ed Malone) are attended to by their housekeeper Margaret (Rachel Pickup), a local woman who has their measure and the measure of the town they live in and has the good sense to keep them separate.
Margaret, luminously played by Pickup, is one of Friel's truly misplaced souls, neither quite at home in her adopted Anglo Irish world and no longer quite part of the world that she grew up in.
She is the Gores’ translator and guide. At times she's also their nanny, and in their service she has crossed an invisible threshold that has divided her loyalties in ways she is still slowly appreciating as the play opens and closes.
What Friel does with unmatched facility is delve into the tribal pieties of both sides in this tense and he makes quite clear sometimes deadly standoff. As the play opens Gore senior has just been to the funeral of fellow landlord the Earl of Leitrim, a real life historical figure, murdered by unknown assassins over his mistreatment of his Irish tenants.
Gore sees a potential fate for himself in Leitrim's. Throughout the play he anxiously refers to “the list” of Anglo Irish names kept by local militants that he fears includes his own.
Into this mix comes Christopher's high Victorian cousin Dr. Richard Gore, an ardent phrenologist anxious to unlock the secrets of the Irish through the measuring of their skulls, the better he believes to understand and frankly exploit them. Dr. Gore is no sentimentalist, and he pursues his study with the dispassion of a longtime surgeon performing an autopsy, which in a sense he is.
Friel gives us scene after extraordinary scene, some of the most unsettling of his career, that look innocuous on the surface until you grasp the sheer enormity of what you're seeing. When Dr. Gore measures the diameter of a famished Irish widow called Mary Sweeney's head (played by Polly McKie) he ignores her plaintive cries for a few coppers to feed her children. In fact her swats her hand away like a persistent fly, with about as much compassion.
In moments like this the playwright reveals that behind kind and indulgent Anglo Irish men like Christopher stand much more ruthless men like his cousin, willing to countenance untold horrors in the pursuit of some kind of social-Darwinist utopian empire.
To Christopher the locals are wily, hard to pin, foolish to dismiss, and possibly murderous. But to his cousin they are simply local case studies in a wider global investigation that will put the English in control of the world through the subjugation of all its people.
Recall that the locals of Ballybeg are paying the Anglo Irish landlord to live in their own country. When they hear of Dr. Gore's study it adds insult to injury, and one local lad named Con Doherty (played with a perfectly judged ferocity by the hypnotically powerful actor Johnny Hopkins) takes it upon himself to speak for the town. Con looks to have had a hand in the disappearance of Lord Leitrim and it looks likes he is planning a similar send off for the quack phrenologist.
What lifts this play into the orbit of Friel's most accomplished works is the appearance of Margaret's school master father Clement O'Donnell (played by Robert Langdon Lloyd). O'Donnell teaches his school choir Tom Moore's songs, and their practice luminously punctuates moments in the unfolding drama.
As in Dancing at Lughnasa and Translations, O'Donnell labors in vain to impart something of the staggering human cost of this brutal colonial misadventure to the Gores, to his unlistening daughter and indeed to himself.
To be Irish he says, in a speech that is an aria in itself, is to be filled with rapture and pathos, as indeed is this country and this play, as well as the dreadful lethal standoff it starts and ends with.
What endures, Friel reminds us, is the song of those young voices. Eluding every social, economic and historical net cast about them, those voices, those songs, are the only clear and enduring road into and out of the past.
Friel gives us those high clear notes at the end of his play and at the end of his extraordinary career. And in a moment pure as a flame, those notes become the unforgettable gift of a master playwright to his maimed and silenced compatriots.