The only thing more prevalent than the full-bodied beer in Druid‘s marvelous play at the Kennedy Center is the feel of the lonely wind coming off Galway Bay and pushing at the backs of these characters, reminding us all that they are clinging to a land’s end in more ways than one. Stoked by both, the characters engage in biting humor, slinging remarks at each other in between stories and songs as they draw us in to their lives.
Conversations on a Homecoming is one of Tom Murphy’s richest and most revelatory plays and is presented this week in a trilogy with two other of Murphy’s works. The plot concerns itself with Michael, played by Marty Rea, who, like many Irish in the last century had escaped to America. He returns home in the 1970’s to try to find something that had gone missing from his life and immediately meets up with a bunch of his pals in their old drinking spot, euphemistically called “The White House.”
As they catch up on local news, they try to revive the good old days but instead begin to tear down each other’s facades and dreams. They are haunted by the specter of the one mate who never appears, a bloke by the name of J.J. As they wait on his arrival, much like the two characters in another great Irish play, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, they drown themselves in booze, showing that they are close to the emotional precipice that some of them tell us J.J. has gone over.
On the surface, the play seems to be treated as a work of naturalism. The pints with the their foamy heads, the cracks in the partition wall, even the very inadequate heater placed high on one wall that lights up red, all create in minutiae a down-and-out pub in “godforsaken Galway” in the western part of Ireland. Francis O’Connor, listed as Associate Director in the program, may get the credit for the stage design that works seamlessly with the acting to make us believe in the world created on stage.
In fact, a few in the audience may have gotten confused and lost in the detailed set and nuanced production. ”Very Irish,” I heard one say, not necessarily complementary. Another said, “If I knew this was going to be my night out, I could have gone to a bar and talked with my friends.”
Don’t let those comments fool you. Garry Hines has directed this play beautifully in its physicality as well as musically. The way the mugs are downed then firmly put down on the tables are as sequenced rhythmically and artfully as the passing of the musical lines and the use of voices as instruments in a well-balanced orchestra.
In the hands of Hynes and her tight-knit ensemble, this show brings us some of the best and most subtle acting you will ever see on the Kennedy Stage or anywhere else. The work is anchored by Marie Mullen who plays J.J.’s mum and the proprietor of The White House. An original member of Druid since the company was formed in 1975, she is able to draw out a smile or a word, as she does with “Yes” (pronounced “Yaaarzh” into something approximating 4 syllables) that makes you want to linger and relish it all with her. She is a master of what the educational world calls “wait time,” and her choices are bold and arresting. She sets the bar for the other younger performers, and the actors comply, playing the music of Murphy’s play and finding the tension between sound and silence throughout.
The total commitment of this ensemble to the play and to the company is apparent in every dramatic beat. Physically, the artists have wrought fully dimensional characters, from the way they sit to the way each one of them distinctly gets drunk.
There’s Rory Nolan as Junior, who, from the first moment of the play, sits like a lump, keeping his knit cap and duffle coat on. There’s one just like him in every bar, the type who never seems to have gone home, and, despite Junior’s vows of “only having two pints” this evening, we watch, nodding with familiarity, as he sloshes beers down faster than anyone else and keeps tabs on who’s pouring and who’s been poured. His style of drunkenness is to get lumpier. But out of his mouth come some of the driest and funniest lines punctuating the evening’s proceedings. When someone recounts that another character has set up his sisters in an antique shop, without missing a beat Junior lays down the comment, “That’s a good place for them.”
As sad and sorry as this lot is, Junior represents just one of the characters who makes this play delightfully funny. All of them resist the cheap laugh that passes for so much humor in American sit-com-style theatre. The humor rises authentically from character and situation, and you have to stay sharp because the actors don’t wait for a canned-laughter sound.
Aaron Monaghan plays Liam, who tells us straight up he’s already started drinking before he arrived. Liam is the sidekick that never quite fits in and is alternately to be pitied and despised. His strange gait trying to stay vertical, his bad hair and the constant jingling of his keys with his arms akimbo make his character an odd duck indeed, a cross between Zorba the Greek and an old time American western crooner.
Garrett Lombard embodies the character of Tom, the schoolteacher who never escaped either the classroom or his country but once was considered the philosopher poet of the group and a natural leader. When Mullen’s Missus reminisces sentimentally about Tom and Michael having been like twins, Junior drily inserts, “Between the two of you, you make one whole person.” It’s a telling line about this man now fallen behind and embittered.
As Tom drinks, his personality shifts to envy and then to viciousness at his once-so-called “twin.” His rants build painfully as the full-blown alcoholic flips character in Jeckyl-and-Hyde fashion. Coiled with tension, he strikes out, not only at Michael, but at his own girlfriend Peggy, played by Eileen Walsh. Peggy’s the “bird” and a kind of groupy to the blokes, and in the hands of anyone less than Walsh a kind of minor character. But Walsh etches her boldly with a toothy shrill laugh and hysterically pitched voice. You know this woman is desperate and will crack at some point.
DruidMurphy: Conversations of a Homecoming
Ends Sept 20, 2012
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
1 hour, 50 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $35 – $65
Details and tickets
Beth Cooke stands, tugging at her thin cardigan to protect herself, is a fragile waif in this roomful of rowdy boozers. As Anne, J.J.’s daughter, she represents the victim of a family broken by poverty and alcohol. Like others, she seems to pin her hopes on Michael, and like others, she is let down.
Rea’s Michael towers physically over the others and waxes in enthusiasm and confidence in his three-piece suit about life in America. Everything he does seems to be in counterpoint to the blokes who stayed home. But as the evening wears on, we see the darker side of this character emerge. His need to connect with the others and his old life even leads him to consider a romantic dalliance with Anne, J.J.’s young daughter. Michael’s thoughts about a geographical “cure” either in America or in this homecoming prove false, and his life built on lies starts tumbling down.
The company has garnered honors on both sides of the pond and deservedly so. Last seen in D.C. with The Cripple of Inishmaan, this play bears some similarities in style, setting, and music. If you missed that production, and you consider yourself a serious theatre lover, you want to head right down to Kennedy Center and see any of Druid’s trilogy playing this weekend – or go diehard and take in all three this Saturday.
Conversations on a Homecoming by Tom Murphy. Directed by Garry Hynes. Produced by Galway theatre company, Druid, and presented by The John F. Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith