By Owen McCafferty
Directed by Des Kennedy
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
In Mojo/Mickybo, Owen McCafferty’s two-man tragedy staged by Keegan last January, Belfast bled all over the stage, as the City’s ceaseless Catholic-Protestant conflict made mincemeat out of two young boys’ friendship, and out of everything else. Rona Munro mined similar territory in last year’s Bold Girls, and many other writers have explored the same thing. Indeed, a theatrical company could easily plan a full season around staged examinations of The Troubles, and how they have robbed life of value in that benighted land.
Scenes from the Big Picture is something else entirely. More scenes than big picture, the play is a cross-section of the life of the city, and of its inhabitants. Belfast is a hard town, and hard lives are lived there, but aside from an astonishing discovery that two young men (Joe Isenberg and Eric Messner) make about their dead father, the scenes do not touch upon The Troubles. Instead, they are about the small dramas and epiphanies any one of us might have, even in a place as odd as Washington, D.C.
There are, for example, scenes from the lives of Dave and Theresa Black (Brian Hemmingsen and Nanna Ingvarsson), whose son disappeared – and doubtlessly died – fifteen years ago to the day. They hold out no hope for his recovery, but Dave lives for the day when the police will find the body. He has become a Victim, while Theresa has become an Executive at the failing abattoir which appears to employ most of the neighborhood. Displacement in time is their source of conflict. She wants to ignore the past in order to live in the future. He wants to live in the past and let the future take care of itself.
Or consider scenes in the life of Joe Hynes (Jason McCool), a man whose allergy to moral choice allows him to betray all he comes into contact with, including his baby-obsessed wife Maeve (Madeleine Burke), his mistress Helen Woods (Stephanie Roswell), and the members of the Union which elected him shop steward when the cool-eyed Theresa induces him to permit the unloading of a meat packer without guaranty of payment.
Or what about Robbie Mullin (Patrick Bussink), a small-time drug dealer to whose junkie girlfriend Connie Dean (Madeline Carr) he assigns lookout responsibilities? Connie’s dalliance with two slack-jawed teenagers, Swiz Murdoch and Bop Torbett (Kevin O’Reilly and Jon Reynolds) has grave consequences that neither she nor we anticipate. Or what about Bop’s dad Bobbie (John C. Bailey), who follows his attendance at the funeral for a despised man with a boozy afternoon spent with two dipsomaniacal buddies, Shanks O’Neill (John Brennan) and Sharon Lawther (Ellie Nicoll)? Or Bop himself, who ignores overtures from the gorgeous Maggie Lyttle (Paloma Ellis) because he is so intent on impressing Maggie’s hoodlum boyfriend, Cooper Jones (Joe Baker)? Or what about the elderly shopkeeper Sammy Lennon (Don Kenefick) and his wife Betty (Declan Cashman), who has a secret she cannot bring herself to tell?
These scenes and characters bounce around each other without ever losing their individuality, like molecules in a superheated chamber. Robbie gives the conservative Betty a lift to the hospital in a car loaded with drug paraphernalia, and laughs about it later with Connie. Cooper steals bottled water from Sammy, and later sends Bop on a mission to steal rolling papers. Dave and Theresa argue about whether she should take time off from her job at the abattoir, while the never-seen owner tries desperately to stave off bankruptcy. Bobbie, Shanks and Sharon drink at Helen’s bar, and later Helen agrees to give Bop a job. These are the ordinary events which befall ordinary people, even ourselves, in an ordinary town, even our own. And yet they achieve a sort of nobility, as the human endeavor itself is noble in its ordinariness.
What emerges is huge, diffuse, and impressionistic – Tolstoy by way of Robert Altman. Belfast wunderkind director Des Kennedy makes this 21 member production fly. Kennedy, who made his reputation by bringing The Laramie Project to Belfast (listen to Kennedy’s podcast interview with Callie Kimball listed below), uses Laramie Project-type devices to supplement and enhance McCafferty’s storytelling. He seats his cast at the back of the stage and separates them from the audience with rolling racks of tinted plastic flaps, of the variety which is used to separate rooms in a meat-packing plant. As their turn in the spotlight emerges they enter smartly through the flaps; other characters enter and exit to add or remove props, thus reinforcing the whole neighborhood’s participation in all the events of the day. Characters bridge the miles via cell phones, and then drop the phones to stare into each other’s faces. The characters dress and undress the set during scene changes with machinelike speed and efficiency; frankly, if the Wizards had exhibited anything like this degree of coordination they might have taken a few games from Cleveland.
Making the mundane majestic, this Solus Nua production reminds us how thrilling it is to understand something anew.
I must tell you that McCafferty ended the play on what seemed to me to be a sentimental and inauthentic note, but it hardly mattered. Notwithstanding the title, this was not a Big Picture but a dozen little ones, all of them exquisitely rendered. He could have ended the play with Shanks staggering Sharon home from the pub; or with Joe’s fruitless final phone call; or with the crashing, minor-chord denouement to Dave and Theresa’s quest, and still have made his hard bitter town a deeply human place for us.
Scenes from the Big Picture clocks in at two hours fifty minutes, including one fifteen-minute intermission, although it feels like 2/3 that time. It continues at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre Thursdays through Sundays until June 24. Sunday shows are at 3; all other shows are at 8. Tickets are $20 ($15 for seniors and students) and may be had at 1.800.494.TIXS or visit the solasnua website.
Callie Kimball speaks with Des Kennedy. Click on speaker icon to listen.