Sometimes a play leaves you with so sweet an ache it lingers for days – so searing is the truth and beauty of it. Such is Tom Murphy’s Famine as I experienced it on opening night.
Mind you, of the three Murphy plays in rep this weekend at the Kennedy Center, this is, in many ways, the most challenging. Gone are the handholds a playwright might have included to help access the drama by building a familiar world or style of acting. Gone is the pub banter and the jokes found in Conversations on a Homecoming. Gone the action-packed brutality of a male world where might makes more might as in A Whistle in the Dark.
Gone too are recognizable rooms and set props. Instead, Director Garry Hynes and Associate Director/Designer Francis O’Connor, along with lighting designer Chris Davey, have created a world as symbolic and evocatively poetic as the writing.
The creators opened up the Eisenhower Theater stage to the back wall, covering it in what looks like panels of corrugated metal set in a diagonal design. The same material is repeated in two arches framing the entire space. What looks like an abstract dressing becomes a source for the minimalist props that are used in a variety of ways. A rectangular panel is torn off the wall to become a sheltering roof. Similarly, another panel becomes a stand-alone door, all that we get to indicate a farmer’s house. (So, when in the play the British army comes to tear down the home, the soldiers simply lift the “door” out of its anchors in the floor, and that house and the world it represents are destroyed.)
A hill of dirt rises along the back wall to a great mound upstage left. When characters cross the back of the stage, it becomes a line of people caught in silhouette climbing out of hell. At the top of the play, a corridor of white light, running across the very front of the stage, displays a single row of potato plants that symbolize the precious crop. When they wilt in the blight that fails, they are dug up in front of us.
The actors in this barren landscape use a great economy of means in every utterance and gesture. Before the house lights go down, the play has already started with the figure of a woman sitting as still as stone, surrounded by what appear to be wooden crates. As people gather on stage, Treasa Ní Mhiolláin begins to keen, and we discover one of the crates is a small coffin. The keen turns into an antiphonal prayer shared between the actress Marie Mullen and her country neighbors. Mullen plays Sinéad Connor, the mother of the dead child, whom we learn has starved in the famine that has already claimed so many lives.
In this most powerful opening scene, the ensemble stands starkly in phalanx formation looking out on a bold diagonal or sit on crates waiting for deliverance. Thus, they announce themselves as a chorus of voices that throughout the play amplifies this key episode of Irish history and marks, as in a great anthem, how it remains in the national consciousness today.
Murphy uses the play as a vehicle to show the link between the land’s betrayal and the shame and humiliation endured by the poor Irish under British colonialism. He sets the tale in County Mayo in 1846 and crafts a story of a farmer’s family and a community trying to survive and remain on their land as the toll on lives continues. In one of the evening’s most dramatic scenes, the characters confront members of the local ruling English and their Irish sympathizers. Niall Buggy plays Father Daly, who tries to work with these authorities only to discover their conspiracy in creating an emigration policy to send the local farmers over to Canada so they can claim their lands.
Murphy’s Famine has the scope and grandeur of a Greek tragedy. At its center is John Connor, played by Brian Doherty, an actor who fills this common man with such dignity and stature, his role reminded me of some of the heroes penned by Arthur Miller. Like another John in Miller’s The Crucible, this flinty character wants so much to do what’s right. But he is unbending in his pride that will not let him abandon the land that was passed down to him through generations, even in the face of more suffering and dying. “I was born here, and I’ll die here, and I’ll rot here,” he cries.
So stark is this work, that the actors are given a magnificent “backdrop” to create searing images and character portraits.
The boldest is Aaron Monaghan as he plays the “small bandy cripple” Micheleen O’Leary, throwing his crutches out in front of him then dragging his damaged body after them, much like a spider crawling across the stage. This torturous movement only amplifies a mind and language similarly twisted. When his people try to protect him, pleading that he means no harm, he fires back evilly, “I mean harm, Charlie.”
Marie Mullen gives likewise another stunning performance in this play as the mother and wife reduced to and torn by the most primal instincts. She makes us follow her every nuanced physical and emotional shift, seeing she is both “the slave of the slave” and also the rock of her family and community.
Ends Sept 20, 2012
The Kennedy Center
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2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
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Beth Cooke, playing her ragged and barefoot daughter, with sibling waif played by Isaac O’Sullivan, symbolize all the children who must witness not only physical death all around them but their own childhoods being wiped out. Cooke physically convinces us that her character has been transformed to an animal’s nature. If Mullen, the mother, shocks us at the end with her sacrifice, it is Cooke along with Gavin Drea both representing touchingly the next generation who makes us believe there are tears and love that can heal and a new spring ahead where something will endure.
It is hard to single out all the strong individual performances. The actors have gelled beautifully, making this a stunning ensemble work. Sometimes the most powerful images are wrought when characters disappear entirely and the actors become anonymous bodies to create something like a painting of horror. During the scene with the British authorities, one arm appears stretched with palm up downstage, next to the back of a body bent and frozen waiting – is it to be beaten or for deliverance? Meanwhile, an actor playing a dead or dying body lying on his back slowly, almost imperceptibly, slithers down the red dirt hill and takes the whole scene to do so. The bodies and the great need are piling up at the doors of the British.
The sonorous music of the play must also be cited. The Irish accents may be challenging to some, but if you listen carefully, the production offers a tapestry of sound that is rich on many levels. These Druid voices play as an ensemble and demonstrate that much attention has been played to pitch and rhythm by director Hynes and cast. Doherty’s deep resonating boom is joined by the powerful voice of Garrett Lombard who together anchor the sometimes delicate flights of the other voices. There is a scene near the end that is conducted as a kind of simultaneous monologue featuring Frank O’Sullivan and Doherty that offers as complex a structure and aural experience as any choral work. The actual instrumental music by Sam Jackson serves beautifully in the interludes to create pauses in the drama and allows the journey of this play to be taken in even more deeply.
Such an emotional journey emblemizes the story of a whole people. Famine is not light entertainment, it requires focus and dedication by the audience as fierce and committed as the Druid actors. If you are willing to lose yourself in its atmosphere, it’s a fine production, one that is in every way as good as it gets.
Famine. Written by Tom Murphy. Directed by Garry Hynes. Produced by Galway theatre company, Druid, and presented by The John F. Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.