This is a meditation on the romance of the tragic drunk; the Yeats-quoting dipsomaniac who so feels the world’s pain that it is necessary for him to polish off three-quarters of a bottle of Jameson each night. You may have one of them in your family, or know someone who does, particularly if you’re Irish. He’s sweet, and witty, and generous, and…and passed out near the back door, the smell of whiskey so strong upon him that you dare not light a match nearby.
This particular drunk is named Billy Lynch (David Whalen), and as Charming Billy opens we are at his post-funeral dinner. Putting the lie to Marc Antony’s famous dictum, his large, working-class family is remembering his good acts with particular affection, while forgiving and excusing his many instances of drunken irresponsibility. It seems that once – over thirty years ago – Billy loved Eva (Molly Cahill Govern), a lass from Ireland who died, and the sorrow of it opened a hole in his heart so large that it could only be filled by alcohol.
If that seems somewhat implausible to you, you have found the center of Alice McDermott’s National Book Award-winning novel, being reproduced with great subtlety and fidelity by adaptor-director Blake Robison on the Round House Stage. The Lynch clan is so fiercely loving, and Billy is so – there is no other word for it – charming, that you may not realize that he wasted his whole life, and the lives of others, for no reason until you try to explain the play to someone else. This is, I think, McDermott’s point, but she achieves it through misdirection, and thus engages our sympathies. When we finally realize what has happened, the blow is doubly hard.
Billy’s cousin and best friend, Dennis Lynch (John Feltch) interrupts the dinner to conjure up memories, and as he does the dead man reappears, young and animated and just back from the Second War. He and Dennis are in the East Hamptons to fix up a dilapidated cottage when they discover Eva, summering in the U.S. with her sister Mary (Brianna Letourneau). Billy falls immediately, and hard, and we see brief scenes of their courtship – he ardent and feckless, she overwhelmed and a little terrified. Govern and Whalen are brilliant in this; we are constantly reminded how poorly they understand each other, even in their most intimate moments together. Nonetheless, the relationship is everything to Billy. When Dennis eventually brings him the news that Eva succumbed to pneumonia while back in Ireland, you can see the lights go off in Billy’s eyes.
Throughout this ninety-minute production, we move from scenes of Billy’s life to the dinner, in which his survivors try to make sense of that life. There are basically two Theories of Billy. The first, for which Dennis is the spokesperson, is that Billy had a terrible disease, and that he would be the bottle’s victim no matter how his life had gone. The second, whose surprising advocate is the curmudgeonly old bachelor Dan Lynch (Mitchell Hébert), is that Billy had a special sensitivity to the world’s terrible beauty, and that his apprehension of it made him drink. A coarser man would have forgotten Eva, but a coarser man may not have loved her at all – and with that, Billy’s flawed but poetic wistfulness serves as a beacon for all of us. Dan yearns for his interpretation to be true with such force that we all do too, even when we know it is false.
I suppose I will eventually have to get around to saying this: I did not much like Feltch as Dennis. It is Dennis’ love for Billy which animates much of the story line; Dennis, after all, makes the principal decisions which make the story go the way that it does. But Feltch, an actor with impressive credentials, elects to give us a low-key Dennis, whose feelings toward Billy were to me unclear. We understand the part of Dennis which is exasperated and annoyed at Billy, as many caretakers for the drink-damaged become, but we don’t fully see the man who would go to his formidable stepfather (Conrad Feininger) and borrow five hundred dollars so that Billy could send for Eva and her mother from Ireland.
But the rest of the cast is fantastic – indeed, Robison loads his cast with so many excellent actors it is a little reminiscent of the time all those great singers assembled themselves to do “We Are the World.” In addition to those already mentioned, any one of these actors could carry a show by him or herself: Julie-Ann Elliot, Kathryn Kelley, Amy McWilliams, Michael Tolaydo. Elliot, who plays Billy’s widow, as grieved by his life as much as his death, and Tolaydo, who plays both her stumblebum dad and a life-affirming Monsignor, are particularly fabulous.
They are supplemented by first-rate technical work, especially Kevin Rigdon’s set and lighting design and Matthew M. Nielson’s excellent sound. Note that the dinner party is on stage for the duration of the play, including those moments where the action is clearly elsewhere; and note further that there are some conversations at the table which are obviously meant to be heard only by the participants, and not by the folks down-table. Rigdon captures these intentions with his pinpoint lighting, so that the fictive dream is never broken. Sets fly onto and off the stage via mobile platforms, but they are never ostentatious or distracting. As befits a subtle play, Nielson’s effects are so well integrated into the production that they sound like ambient noises, as though it were suddenly raining in Bethesda, or that the Round House had been transported to Ocean City.
Those of you who have read the book should understand that Robison has mined it – skillfully – for its essence. Dennis’ mother, for example, is absent, and so is the unnamed narrator (although in this stage version Dennis does have a daughter, named Rosemary and played effectively by Kate Guesman). But what remains is McDermott’s fine story of why we love sad and romantic people like Billy Lynch, and why they break our hearts.
Adapted by Blake Robison from the novel “Charming Billy” by Alice McDermott
Directed by Blake Robison
Produced by Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes without intermission