The justly celebrated Conor McPherson, whose The Weir and Dublin Carol do honor to an Irish storytelling tradition stretching back to Swift, Joyce, Yeats, Shaw, and Wilde, has written an honest, gripping piece of theater which delves deeply into painful issues. Quotidian Theatre Company’s unadorned, moving production does Port Authority justice.
In the traditional ballad “Down by the Sally Gardens” which opens the play, the singer sadly notes, “She bade me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs; But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.” This is the story of Port Authority, and of the three Irish men who, through their own folly, have missed their chance for true fulfillment.
At the start, the three men array themselves on several benches scattered across a wharf, presumably the titular Port Authority. They rise in turn: first the young man, Kevin, followed by middle aged Dermot, with the wizened Joe rounding out the rotation. Each delivers a short monologue detailing a specific chapter of his main story, and once finished, cedes the stage to the next man, resuming his place in the darkened background. The slow, deliberate rhythm of the piece allows director Jack Sbarbori and his actors plenty of time to ensnare the audience in concise, stirring moments that might otherwise be overlooked in a busier show.
James Flanagan delivers a sympathetic, moving performance as the soft-spoken Kevin. As he progresses through his monologues, the audience comes to know a hopeful young man who drifts along in a limbo of “almost there”, never really taking control of his life. His is a story of a love deferred both by inconvenient timing and fear of rejection and loss. His constant capitulation eventually proves quite frustrating, a fact of which Kevin seems all too aware. In hindsight, he is fully aware of his mistakes, and he carries a burden of resentment over the fact that he can do nothing to change the past. Flanagan (who will be remembered for his performance in dark play…), masterfully manifests these complex emotions with a quiet, wounded delivery and ever-present air of disappointment, broken only by the occasional laugh at a funny anecdote. His best moments come as he discusses shared moments with his longtime friend and secret flame, seeming unsure whether to smile or burst into tears.
As midlife crisis survivor Dermot, Steve Beall also walks a tightrope, balancing between sympathetic and loathsome identities. After an unexpected promotion, Dermot is thrust into a world of high rollers and trophy wives. While he is excited by his new surroundings, he is unsure of himself, making many a hilarious faux pas while wondering if this is truly the life he wants. At his best, Dermot is a hardworking father and husband who put his dreams and happiness on hold for the good of his family, no matter his own feelings or reservations. At his worst, he is an alcoholic who scorns his wife and child in a desperate bid to climb the social ladder. Beall delivers a measured, realistic depiction of this conflicted character, applying just the right mix of pompous boasts and humbling self-deprecation to keep the audience from totally supporting or despising him. Beall is stunning in his final monologue, crumpling physically and emotionally as several crushing realizations about his own life bring him crashing back to earth.
Finally, Quotidian regular Steve LaRocque offers a spellbinding performance as Joe, the composed older gentleman concealing a deep well of emotion and repressed desire. Of the three men, Joe initially seems the only one to truly accept his lot in life. As the other two share their innermost emotions and regrets, Joe hides behind a mask of comfort and routine, avoiding deep questions and self-examination at all costs. As his story unfolds, hints of something deeper beneath the gruff exterior begin to leak out, ultimately revealing an old man afraid to truly live. My favorite moment of the production catches Joe at his most vulnerable, lost in a haze of fear and self-doubt after so many years of control. After almost reaching out to the object of his heart’s desire, an embarrassed Joe quickly excuses himself from the scene. He runs back to his house, shuts the door, and sits on the stairs, where he remains for hours pondering what he has just done. With his weary physicality, slow drawl, and searching eyes, LaRocque translates McPherson’s poignant writing into a mesmerizing and heartbreaking scene. I couldn’t take my eyes off him as he described how he “just sat there and watched the house grow dark”.
It’s difficult to find very much lacking in this production. Of the few weak points, the plot construction is perhaps the most problematic. In short, McPherson tries to tie all three men together through certain shared events, perhaps to achieve a sort of narrative cohesion and avoid a totally disjointed storyline. However, the three men’s tales stand just fine on their own, and the shared details serve as only a distraction. The Irish accents can get a bit slippery at times, unfortunately shifting the focus from McPherson’s crisp writing to the actors’ occasionally muddy delivery. The play also involves fairly frequent use of profanity, including graphic references to sex, drugs, and general bad behavior. While this is not a strike against the production by any means, it does make it rather inappropriate for children and those with delicate sensibilities.
Getting past the small issues, Port Authority is well worth a trip to The Writer’s Center in Bethesda for its stellar writing and three strong, complex performances from Flanagan, Beall, and LaRocque. This story of love, loss, and the life unlived is theater at its most captivating.
By Conor McPherson
Directed by Jack Sbarbori
Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company
Reviewed by Ben Demers