By Joseph Hurley
THE IRON HARP, by Joseph O’Conor. Performed by Celtic Theatre Company, in residence at Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J. Through Feb. 3.
The idea probably isn’t written into the organization’s charter, but the Celtic Theatre Company, in residence at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., appears to be making something of a specialty of exhuming little-known plays by forgotten writers and giving them another brief moment in the sun.
Many of the CTC’s disinterments had been items on the bill-of-fare at Dublin theaters — the Abbey, the Gate and others, a few decades back — but most of them never got far beyond their initial productions. Even their titles, for the most part, don’t ring any bells.
Who has ever heard of “Autumn Fire” or “The Will and the Way”? Or what about “The Country Boy” or “Professor Tim” or “All Souls’ Night”? Sometimes the group produces the lesser-known works of famous writers, such as Brian Friel’s “The Enemy Within” and J.B. Keane’s “The Field,” familiar, perhaps, as a film starring Richard Harris but not much known as the play from which the movie was adapted.
The object of the CTC’s current restoration is Joseph O’Conor’s “The Iron Harp,” produced mainly at English regional theaters in the mid-1950s, like the Birmingham Rep, where, in the fall of 1957, the leading role of the “recently blinded” Michael O’Riordan was played by Albert Finney, not yet a star.
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“The Iron Harp,” set in an Irish manor house owned by an Englishman, takes place over the course of 24 hours in April 1920. Since the owner, Peter Tolly, heir to a British fortune, is mainly absent, the house is more or less occupied and run by O’Riordan, who is both an IRA officer and an employee of Tolly’s.
Among the structure’s “residents” on the day of the play’s action is John Tregarthen, a captain in the British army who happens to be an IRA prisoner, left in the benign custody of the sightless O’Riordan, whose affliction has sentenced him to a form of house arrest.
Among the manor’s visitors are Molly Kinsella, O’Riordan’s cousin, who has fallen in love with the captive English officer, and Sean Kelly, an important IRA functionary, and, as such, the blinded man’s superior in the organization.
“The Iron Harp” takes its title from a legend maintaining that “the harp of the Harper of Finn had three strings: the bronze which put the listeners to sleep, the silver which put them to laughter and the iron which put them to tears.”
In the play, an English prisoner is under the threat of a retaliatory assassination when it is learned that the British authorities have slaughtered their Irish prisoners.
O’Riordan, who has grown friendly with Tregarthen, in addition to being aware of his cousin’s love for him, concocts an elaborate escape plan, which is compromised when Kelly, the IRA chieftain, arrives sooner than anticipated with an execution warrant. O’Conor’s writing is enlivened by a healthy awareness of Irish custom and legend, the manipulation of which serves to enliven what might otherwise come across as a conventional melodrama with a valid political undercoating.
O’Conor, of whom virtually no information is available beyond the fact that he often played the blinded hero, O’Riordan, in early productions, appears to have had a fairly keen ear. He paints the absentee householder, Tolly, as the sort of Englishman who refers to the Irish as “natives.”
The company that director Deirdre Yates has assembled for “The Iron Harp” is, as is generally the case with the CTC, both energetic and enthusiastic. Although they are amateurs, the CTC actors involved clearly display the benefits of having worked together on a regular basis. Glenn Jones’s O’Riordan is a sympathetic hero, convincing in his blindness and acceptable, if not outstanding, in the two folk songs assigned to him by the script.
Kenneth Robert Marlo is sturdy and eager as Tregarthen, while Dennis Driskill is suitably authoritative as the IRA enforcer, Kelly. In a brief, early appearance, Patrick Hughes is believably obtuse as the Englishman, Tolly.
The Celtic Theatre company deserves credit for searching out these obscure Irish plays and giving them an airing.