Category: Archive

Fear on the border

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Although Ford’s film was set in Dublin during the 1920s Troubles, and Carolan’s play takes place, as the Irish Rep program puts it, on “a farm on the border of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, l986,” the atmosphere, compounded of mistrust, fear and suspicion in roughly equal parts, is much the same, as is the simple, unswerving plotline, not all that much concerned with subtlety or psychological ambivalence.
It is also, to be sure, more or less as compellingly watchable, as it thunders along on its 90-minute, intermissionless course toward its violent conclusion, as the old film was and, for the most part, still is.
By the year in which Carolan’s play is set, the violence and cruelty so often and so casually attributed to the IRA was in the process of becoming something less lethal than it had been.
Indeed, “Defender of the Faith,” with its casually ironic, one-size-fits-all title, is purposely vague about precisely what is going on that shabby farmstead, and exactly what the concerns of the six people involved actually are.
There is, it is soon clear, an informer in their midst, and the climate of doubt and incipient terror is both unilateral and inescapable.
The father of a distressed farm family, Joe, has two sons, Thomas, fully grown, and Danny, apparently not yet quite into his teens.
There was, however, until two years earlier, another brother, Seamus, 14 months older than Thomas, and much beloved by him. The older brother had apparently drowned, although the circumstances are extremely murky, to the point that Thomas fantasizes that his adored brother had, in fact, been executed.
In addition to the deceased brother, there is also an unseen mother, still living, but referred to by her husband as a “nutter,” and confined to a nearby mental institution of some unspecified description.
In addition to the brothers and their volatile powder keg of a father, there is also a somewhat mysterious retainer, Barney, working the farm and being barely tolerated by the members of the family.
There is also, recently arrived as the play begins, J.J., a stranger sent down from Belfast, and clearly charged with the mission of smoking out and dealing with the
informer known to be in the midst of the farm’s residents.
Carolan’s play, his first, is purely and unashamedly a melodrama, a representative of a slightly debased theatrical genre. Its characters are, in some ways, little more than stick figures, uninflected and not given much in the way of what’s commonly called a “backstory,” a device providing a sort of personal history for each of them.
Here, the audience is confronted by the brutal, coarse father, the sensitive, intelligent older son, the precocious, curious younger sibling, the mysterious hired hand, the newly arrived stranger, and so forth.
The production, as is almost always the case with the Irish Rep, is well cast, and, as directed by Ciaran O’Reilly, the organization’s Producing Director, moves along at a briskly satisfying pace.
“Defender of the Faith” was first produced at Dublin’s Peacock Theater, the subterranean auditorium of Ireland’s National Theater, more familiarly known as the Abbey, in 2004.
Carolan, a former current affairs radio producer, was co-winner of the 2005 George Devine Award as the year’s most promising playwright for “Defender of the Faith.” A second play, “Empress of India,” was produced in October, 2006, by Galway’s Druid Theatre Company as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.
“Defender of the Faith” is very definitely the work of a tyro playwright, and, just as obviously, a young one as well. By the same token, it’s a promising play, and, when it’s done as well as it is in this case, it’s abundantly rewarding.
In the production’s six-actor cast, two members are returning to the Irish Rep. David Lansbury, a standout in the group’s recent production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape,” is convincing in the enigmatic role of the inquisitor from Belfast, while Peter Rogan, who has appeared in Rep productions ranging from Dion Boucicault’s “The Shaughraun” to Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars,” is credible and sturdy as Barney the farmhand.
Anto Nolan is a convincingly bullying father, while young Matt Ball delivers a solid portrait of the farmer’s youngest son and Marc Aden Gray does well with the brief role of an unexpected visitor to the farm.
The most outstanding aspect of the Rep production of “Defender of the Faith, however, is very probably the sterling participation of a young Canadian actor, Luke Kirby, in the pivotal part of Thomas, the eldest surviving son, a character who dominates much of the play’s sometimes complex activity. Lean and expressive, Kirby is definitely an actor with a bright future awaiting him.
In a play carrying a specific time and place, pitfalls can abound. Did soft drinks really come in plastic bottles in l986? Did people say derisively of one thing or another that “It isn’t rocket science” back then? It’s difficult to know for certain, but “Defender of the Faith” seems to have come equipped with an anachronism or two, items that tend to leap out of the play’s otherwise unified fabric.
When Ciaran O’Reilly searches for a play to direct, it appears that he’s attracted to works containing a goodly measure of onstage violence. An interloper was beaten to death with a stout stick in “The Field,” and Yank, the hero of “The Hairy Ape” met his fate at the hands, or perhaps the paws, of another primate, a gorilla caged at the Bronx Zoo.
In the bloody climax of “Defender of the Faith,” a major figure succumbs after a beating with a common farming implement.
Perhaps the Rep is experiencing a lust for theatrical mayhem, which may or may not be a good thing. The recent over-sugared production of the musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis” might have been slightly improved by a dash of innocent family violence.
Or perhaps not. In any event, there’s rough stuff to spare in “Defender of the Faith,” there for the taking at the Irish Rep through the 22nd of April.

“Defender of the Faith”
Written by: Stuart Carolan
Directed by: Ciaran O’Reilly
Starring: David Lansbury, Peter Rogan, Anto
Nolan, Matt Ball, Marc Aden Gray, Luke Kirby
Where: Irish Repertory Theatre,
132 West 22nd St., NYC
When: Through April 22

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