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Cusack illuminates ‘Our Lady of Sligo’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

OUR LADY OF SLIGO, by Sebastian Barry. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark. Starring Sinead Cusack, Andrea Irvine, Jarlath Conroy, Melinda page Hamilton, Sinead Colreavy and Tom Lacy. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, NYC. Through June 4.

Sebastian Barry’s richly translucent, deeply insightful writing owes a certain something to James Joyce and to Virginia Woolf, which suggests that it is absorbing, compelling, memorable, but not necessarily wholly or effortlessly a natural fit for the stage.

What Barry’s work needs, based on his two best-known plays, "The Steward of Christendom," which played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1998, and "Our Lady of Sligo," the beautiful and somberly witty tragicomedy that opened at the Irish Repertory Theatre last Thursday, is extraordinary participation on the part of the actors cast in the major roles, most of which are closely based on members of the playwright’s family.

In "The Steward of Christendom," playing Barry’s great-grandfather Thomas Dunne, the late Donal McCann gave one of the great English language performances of the century, sufficiently vibrant to transform an inherently static mass of brilliant prose into a living, breathing work for the stage.

In "Our Lady of Sligo," Sinéad Cusack, the firstborn daughter of the beloved Cyril Cusack, is asked to pull off a similar theatrical miracle under circumstances that, because of the text’s endlessly shifting time frame, are at least as difficult as those that confronted McCann, and, arguably, even moreso.

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Under the direction of Max Stafford-Clark, who has been with the production since its initial performance, at the Oxford Playhouse on March 26, 1998, the slight, incandescent Cusack, playing the writer’s maternal grandmother, Mai O’Hara, is required to move back and forth from the innocence of childhood to a surly, alcohol-ridden death of cancer at age 53 in Dublin’s Jervis Street Hospital in 1953.

The director sets the play’s present tense with Anne Shelton’s popular 1951 recording of "This Year’s Crop of Kisses," an ironic musical choice for a play whose characters are fundamentally unloving and even unlovable. It speaks volumes for actress Cusack’s remarkable skill and dexterity that she manages to evoke a certain measure of sympathy for Mai, even at her vengeful worst, without ever once begging for it in the subtle ways that even certain good actors employ to semaphore their audiences that there is a self-protecting cushion of invisibility between their familiar, admirable selves and the less-than-lovable characters they are currently embodying.

In other words, Sinéad Cusack’s Mai is a creation of enormous courage, with the gifted actress taking vast risks and coming up aces from start to finish. And she does it without makeup. In fact, when, at a moment late in the play, Mai asks the loyal, patient nursing sister at Jervis Street to apply some simple facial cosmetics, the advent of lipstick and powder serves mainly to remind the audience precisely how radiantly beautiful Cusack’s luminous face had been all evening without artificial enhancement.

Unseen on the New York stage since she played a sparkling, intellectually acute Beatrice opposite Derek Jacobi’s somewhat petulant Benedick in Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing" on Broadway a decade ago, Cusack is one of the theater’s great technicians, a skill that proves invaluable as she negotiates the constantly changing, often threatening, depths and shallows of Barry’s complicated, sometimes confusing-seeming narrative.

Fine as she is, Cusack is by no means the only treat on the menu of "Our Lady of Sligo." Andrea Irvine, the only other performer retained from the play’s original cast, plays the unnamed hospital sister with a rare combination of limpid grace and steadfast determination.

As Jack, Mai’s mainly well-intentioned husband, a military man from a vaguely lower social class, an alcoholic who "drank away a house," the mournful-faced Jarlath Conroy supplies the same focused intensity he demonstrated a few months ago when he took over the role of the real estate man in the final weeks of the Broadway run of Conor McPherson’s "The Weir."

Melinda Page Hamilton, playing Mai’s daughter Joanie at a variety of ages ranging from childhood to early adulthood, a character who is, of course, closely based on the playwright’s mother, actress Joan O’Hara, catches the precise tone of a burgeoning careerist who has learned to distance herself from the domestic battlefield in which she has been raised.

As a long-term friend and comfort source, Maria, resident of a rural retreat Mai remembers as having been an island of happiness and calm, and a cousin of her father’s, Sinéad Colreavy brings a warm mixture of common sense and ironic dignity.

Mai’s father, Dada, long dead but recalled from the grave by Mai’s tumultuous memory for two brief visitations, is embodied by the excellent Tom Lacy as a slow-moving human barge in a business suit and a bowler hat.

Barry’s language-rich play is a kind of rigorously disciplined fever dream, with hallucination and reality making perilous entrances and exists in the world of Mai’s collapsing consciousness, jostling each other as they pass, and sometimes nearly colliding in doorways.

The O’Haras are, in the view of Oxford professor and Yeats biographer Robert Fitzroy Foster, "the Catholic bourgeoisie of the last Home Rule generation, born to inherit a world destroyed by the Sinn Fein revolution which began with the 1916 Rising and culminated in the 1921 Treaty."

When playwright Warren Leight portrayed his parents’ tortured marriage in the Tony Award-winning drama "Side Man," he at least masked the family name, altering it to "Glimmer," in a little private joke few people got.

Sebastian Barry doesn’t go in for that sort of harmless deception. Here, as in "The Steward of Christendom" and elsewhere, he uses real names, writing about a grandmother he never met, a woman who died before he was born but who nevertheless has, he has written, "for 30-odd years . . . loomed there in the shadows of my life, a presence, a warning and a challenge."

"Our Lady of Sligo" is itself a challenge, to the audience as well as to the actors charged with bringing it to life onstage. It is emphatically not one of those comfortable, reassuring little Irish plays that snuggle around your ankles or jump into your lap, begging to be loved. The Irish Rep just did one of those when they produced John Murphy’s "The Country Boy."

Barry’s play is so complex and so demanding of attention that it almost asks to be seen twice, in the interests of fully illuminating its multilayered verbal imagery and lighting a clear path through the Joycean lamination with which the playwright has chosen to tell his heartbreaking family story.

And then, above and beyond everything, there is Sinéad Cusack’s extraordinary performance, almost unbearably painful in its selflessness, surely the fullest and most relentlessly honest portrait of a woman on any New York stage since Margaret Edson’s "Wit" ended its long run a couple of weeks ago.

If there is such a thing as a production that almost literally cries out to be seen this season, it may well be Stafford-Clark’s profoundly intelligent staging of Sebastian Barry’s powerful and personal "Our Lady of Sligo."

Besides, how long has it been since a six-actor cast could boast of having not just one, but two actresses named Sinéad?

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