Take Me Away
by Gerald Murphy
produced by Solas Nua
directed by Linda Murray
reviewed by Tim Treanor
Oh, what a fine nasty little play this is, as mean as a wolverine and as tight as a Chinese box puzzle! What a sweet festival of malevolence do Eddie (Joe Cronin) and his three brutish sons create! To witness the crude, manipulative Eddie thrust and parry with sullen Bren (Jared Hill Mercier), dimwitted Kevin (Kevin O’Reilly) and the corkscrew-hearted Andy (Alex Vernon) is truly to witness the war of all against all. And there is, literally, blood on the floor.
Rarely in theater do characters pursue their objectives as nakedly as this spectacularly dysfunctional family does. Here’s the setup: the boys’ mother, Eddie’s wife, is apparently in the hospital – although which hospital, and for what, is entirely unclear. The boys have assembled in Bren’s living room – to Bren’s surprise – preparatory to a visit. “The auld fellow,” their father, will not answer their questions until he receives assurances that Andy’s wife and son will arrive and accompany them on their trip to visit mum. Those assurances are not forthcoming. Discuss among yourselves. Note, however, that Bren, whose objective is to get rid of his family so that he can watch porn on the internet, is the most sympathetic of the characters.
Last year this company produced Portia Coughlin, a drama which failed to work largely because the characters were so despicable. How is this play different? In Take Me Away, the needs and forces which drive these characters – for money, for love, for stability in your life, even the need to be left alone – are readily recognizable, and easily understood. You need not, for example, like the domineering Eddie to understand the desperate nature of his plight.
Murphy gifts us with an extensive discussion of his play in the program, in which he characterizes it as an examination of the impact of Irish boom times on those who do not share in them, in which the characters “had no experience with, or previous use for, a vocabulary of emotion.” While it is a fool’s game to argue with a playwright about his play, I respectfully submit that he has written a much better piece than he suggests here. His beautifully-rendered characters are miserable by nature, and would be miserable regardless of economic conditions. And their vocabulary is exquisitely designed to get what they want; emotions, real and synthetic, are trotted out and displayed for precisely as long as they can plausibly be used. They shine the image of the sickly mother – a premium emotional calling-card in the Irish culture (and many others) – at each other until it loses its power. That Andy speculates with ill-concealed glee that his mother has terminal cancer, and thus that he will come into an inheritance, shows how desperate and debased his character has become.
None of this would work without top-flight acting, and we get it from this troupe. Cronin plays Eddie as a hoarse, grimacing, sweating (fine is the actor who can sweat on cue!) man, Ralph Kramden without Ralph’s redeeming sense of humility. O’Reilly, as the pea-brained youngest son, paces himself brilliantly. One of the great pleasures of this play is to see comprehension slowly flicker across his slab-of-ham face. Mercier’s character is given none of the comic possibilities that the other players have, but he is at every moment credible as a man who is in control of himself (except, perhaps, when on the internet), determined to learn from his family’s mistakes. But it is Vernon as a malign little creep, in his twenties and already in training to become a bitter old man, who gives what will clearly be one of the season’s great performances. His Andy, swaggering half-smile half-sneer pasted resolutely on his face, is breathtaking in his audacity. His contemptuous, evasive answers to his brother’s questions show him to be unwilling even to gesture at sincerity. His moment of truth, when it does come, is agonizing, and it is a tribute to the way which Vernon develops the character that it is full of emotional credibility notwithstanding the moral sinkhole into which he has fallen.
The set which Dan Brick and Linda Murray designed identifies Bren’s modest but upwardly-mobile ambitions precisely, but it occasions the show’s only false moment – when a character bangs his head against a wall, producing a Niagara of blood. The walls are simply too flimsy to take the battering needed to make such a startling development credible. But the discordant moment passes quickly, and we are soon back at the well-seasoned meat of the play.
The 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes once described life as nasty, brutish and short, although modern medicine has alleviated this last condition. Take Me Away is nasty, brutish, about a hundred five minutes long, funny and full of a delightful crackling vigor, completely satisfying.
Running Time: 1:45, without intermission.
Where: Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G Street NW, Washington DC
When: Thursdays through Sundays until October 26. Sunday shows are at 3; all other shows are at 8.
Tickets: $20. Call 1.800.494.TIXS or on the website.