History is written by the winners, and in the war between the generations the younger generation is always the winner.
Hugh Leonard’s Da is not always gentle and not always affectionate, but what distinguishes his account of his adoptive parents, now being given a vigorous and intelligent staging at Olney Theatre Center, from the typical child’s victory-lap memoir is its searing honesty. Da (Des Keogh) is a constant embarrassment to his son Charlie (a thinly-disguised Leonard, here played by James Whalen as an adult and Drew Kopas as a young man), but Leonard is honest enough to also let us see Charlie’s own embarrassing behavior, and to allow us to feel embarrassed for, and not just with, the old man.
We begin after Da’s funeral, with Charlie deep in the business of shutting down the house. Charlie gets a visit from his old friend Oliver (Nick DePinto), and they pass an uncomfortable five minutes or so. This is probably the only part of the play that doesn’t work. I might as well get this out of the way: DePinto, normally a fine actor, and director Halo Wines simply don’t find the center of Oliver’s character. From the text he seems to be the sort of Irishman who lacks the imagination or nerve to escape his roots, and who accordingly becomes a part-time mendicant. But in DePinto’s hands he seems merely odd, in such a way that I half-expected Charlie to turn around and say, “what’s wrong, Oliver?” He never does, though.
After that, the ghosts come in and we are under way. First comes Da, offering tea or a glass of Porter, followed by Charley’s long-dead mother (Brigid Cleary) and finally, by the young Charlie himself, who is preparing for a job interview. It is the early forties in the rural Irish countryside. Da is a gardener and mother is a homemaker, but Charlie has higher aspirations – he wishes to be a clerk, and do the sorts of tasks which are now being done by PCs. I don’t mean to romanticize this; da really is a dolt, and certainly gives Charlie reason to be embarrassed. When the potential employer, Mr. Drumm (Ian LeValley, as good as I’ve ever seen him), comes to interview Charlie, Da speculates happily on how prosperous Ireland will be once Hitler beats the British. (This was a surprisingly common view in Ireland during the early part of the war. Hitler’s depredations were remote and under reported, but Ireland had been under the British thumb since the time of Henry II.) What makes him a special character is not simply that he utters this preposterous sentiment, but that he remains blissfully ignorant of Drumm’s shocked response, or the look of extreme distress on his wife’s face.
Or does he? Da remains an elusive character throughout the narrative, a powerless man who may be using his apparent stupidity to express feelings not otherwise allowed to him. Did his blundering remark really mask a rage that only occasionally slips through his pleasant demeanor? And what about the time he – seemingly by coincidence – wanders up to the troubled young woman with whom Charlie is about to relieve his virginity (Rachel Holt)? Da talks with her about her home and family and she talks back, thus turning from a carnal version of a hot cross bun into a human being before Charlie’s eyes, and making it impossible for the young man to consummate the act he intended. Was da just being his usual blundering, blithering self? Or could it have been – intentional?
Keogh, a veteran Irish actor who has done substantial work in England and the United States as well, presents a thick accent that is occasionally difficult to interpret but he is so limber of body and expressive of face that he could have done his lines in Swahili and we would still get most of it. Keogh’s Da is a lifelong loser but an indomitable one, and even as he shambles off at play’s end we realize his life after death, in Leonard’s mind and ours, will be a long one.
Wines gets excellent performances out of Cleary, Holt, Kopas and Whalen as well. Kopas and Whalen bear a startling resemblance to each other on stage, in part due to fine (uncredited) hair and makeup but also due to an artistically well-grounded decision to match their postures and speech patterns. Cleary nails her character – a woman forced to compromise with life at an early age – from the get-go, and thereafter feeds us with complexity and subtlety. Holt, who did a fine job in The Receptionist at Studio, does another one as Mary Tate, the local bad girl. To see her expression soften as her conversation with da turns her from tart to Tate is to understand that acting requires the cooperation of the whole person.
Ian LeValley’s performance deserves a paragraph by itself, and gets one. His Drumm is a sort of alternate-world father for Charlie – a sharp intellect whose perceptiveness has led him into despair. He never embarrasses himself, but he is embarrassed by everyone around him – even his daughters, whom he ridicules. LeValley imbues him with a brooding cynicism, but washes him with a patina of pain so profound that he becomes sympathetic. His sharp remarks will make you cringe, even as Da’s dull ones do.
As usual, Olney’s production values, particularly Jon Savage’s efficient set, are top-notch.
In 1973, when Olney first produced the world premier of this play, it published Leonard’s program notes. “How did one write a play about a man in whose life there was not an ounce of conventional – i.e. theatrical – drama?” the playwright asked, “I thought of those men whom you meet on the streets in Ireland – probably in Washington also – who go past on their way home from work and say: ‘Brave day!’ or ‘That was a nice sup of rain.’ We reply in our salt-of-the-earth voice, reserved for encounters with inconsequential old jossers, and give them not a second thought, if, indeed, we spare them a first. It occurred to me that if I could not find a play in any man’s life – never mind that of my father – I wasn’t a writer at all.”
It turns out that Leonard was a writer – quite a writer. Olney was the first to recognize this play. Thanks, guys.
By Hugh Leonard
Directed by Halo Wines
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Tim Treanor