A doleful ballad fittingly eases you into Quotidian Theatre Company’s (QTC’s) lovingly rendered production of Conor McPherson’s Port Authority. Three generations of Irishmen then introduce themselves in turn, each starting into an accounting which define them as men. It’s not evident why these three avatars, unaware of one another and from an unknown place are speaking to us, but the offering is typical of McPherson, and a great gift for those attuned to listen carefully.
First staged in 2001, Port Authority is an early showcase for McPherson’s sublimely structured monologues shaped into graceful swan dives of remorse and contoured with textured reflections of the revelatory found in the everyday.
McPherson is a master of the form in which the prosaic is turned into scripture blossoming with often humorous and heartbreaking novelistic details. The script is dense however, and no word is wasted, so if you turn away even for a moment, you’ll miss something vital. It took me a few minutes to reappoint my ears to the flow of the cadence. Once I was acclimated, the familiar gratification was there, and I was caught up in the entertaining twists of each character’s story and the suspense built from crafting the confessions to interleave over one another until the final sign off.
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Each character in Port Authority stands to speak, picking up where he previously left off as another sits down, until all three have said their piece. It feels like a purgatory of sorts, like the men—and by extension all of us—have a recounting toll to pay in penance to bear the cost for squandering what was possible.
QTC Artistic Director Jack Sbarbori directs the play with an affectionate touch and a respectful hand, trusting the actors to carry long stretches of monologue and it pays off in sensitive, resonant performances. Each character and the story he tells is vivid and with a little squinting it felt at times like the three men were the same man, in different stages of life.
Kevin (Chris Stinson) barely out of his teens, faces the exhilarating open road of possibility with wide eyes and eager abandon. He’s a likable chap who doesn’t exactly fit in with the hip pub music crowd, a grimy world of bands with names like the Bangers and the Lepers and raucous parties and a lifestyle that only seems acceptable when you’re that age. It’s a time when, for many, daily experiences are new and exciting and the unknown is scary, including letting the girl that makes you nervous with fluttering anxiety know how you feel about her. Kevin comes across as fully present in the goings-on around him, but the text tells a counter story—he’s more comfortable following the flow than working out what he really wants and acting on that.
Port Authority closes November 17, 2019. Details and tickets
To that end, Stinson plays the part mild and obliging. His passivity makes him sympathetic and supports the main idea of the play, but I’d be curious to see the role performed with more brio.
Joe (Joseph Palka) is snugly settled at the other end of life’s journey, a widower living in a retirement home and under a metaphorical suit of armor built up over a lifetime. He projects the unquestioned privilege come from being aged, outwardly avoiding any self-examination while revealing repressed peeks into a past unrequited passion from afar for a woman not his wife.
Led by his dour visage, snappy cardigan and hunched form, Palka skillfully conveys the elderly man nearly out of time and free from the pressures of others’ expectations. But he must deal with a full lifetime of self-reproach, which can be the sharpest sting of all.
While Stinson and Palka get the job done, Matthew Vaky’s expansive performance as the socially crippled, middle-aged money manager Dermot is on another level. His story arc is a marvel in itself, (maybe out of place in this generally muted triptych), a hilarious misadventure about a stunted, alcoholic bozo and his very brief time cavorting in the vanity fair among the jet set before deflating in front of our eyes.
Vaky is terrifyingly good in a complex portrayal of a man out of control. From the start, from his jumped-up physicality to his inspired lime-green jersey and slightly shoddy clothes (costumes by Sbarbori), the man is an ogre of unquenched appetite drawn to avarice like a moth to flame. But he’s also a boffo comic figure, a lovable idiot, and sadly relatable as the man past his prime who realizes that he’s come up short. In the final moments of his monologue, while revealing the nature of his relationship with his neglected wife, Vaky turns it up yet another notch, touching a crushing pathos worthy of a character from O’Neill.
Port Authority lacks the increasingly dramatic complexity and edge of McPherson’s acclaimed later work Shining City and The Seafarer, but it’s still potent. And the QTC stage at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda is the perfect space to take in McPherson’s intimate elegy to shackled inner lives and stifled longing.
Port Authority by Conor McPherson. Directed by Jack Sbarbori. Featuring Chris Stinson, Matthew Vaky and Joseph Palka. Set Design: Jack Sbarbori. Lighting Design: Don Slater. Costume Design: Jack Sbarbori. Stage Manager: Lynda Bruce. Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.