Category: Archive

On the Aisle: Blowin’ in the wind

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

There appears to be something decidedly self-destructive in a young playwright who titles his first play “The Lepers of Baile Baiste,” then follows it up with another he titled “The Blowin of Baile Gall,” playing at the Irish Arts Center through October 30.
Granted, what Ronan Noone, who has lived in Massachusetts for over a decade, has in mind is a trilogy, a theatrical triptych, the final panel of which will be named “The Gigolo Confessions of Baile Breag,” so it seems safe to assume that the fact that the titles he bestows on his work appear, almost by design, to have been created to achieve maximum audience obfuscation. Or perhaps he hasn’t noticed, or simply doesn’t care.
When Brian Friel’s great success, “Dancing at Lughnasa,” appeared, the title was mispronounced as often as not, even to the point of Michael Douglas stumbling over it on the telecast of the Tony Award ceremonies.
What Noone has achieved in “The Blowin of Baile Gall,” at least until he himself experiences a series of stumbles of increasing destructiveness, is a rip-snorting melodrama set in the kitchen of an ordinary small town Irish residence undergoing considerable renovation at the hands of an ill-assorted collection of workmen.
The crew is made up of a quintet of workers, one of them the General Contractor, Samuel Carson, Jr., a local resident who has returned to his hometown after considerable time in America, resulting in a sort of mid-Atlantic attitude, with vocabulary to match.
Another is a woman, Molly Black, strong-willed, self-possessed, but nevertheless, in a sense, uncertain about her position in a traditionally male world.
The third is, like the “G.C.,” a “recovering alcoholic, a none-too-bright individual, Stephen O’Gorman, who has recently taken conspicuous solace in reading his Bible, and who could be said to be “born again,” much to the disappointment of Molly, his girlfriend, since in turning toward religion, he has lost whatever interest he may ever have had in sex.
The fourth character is the psychotic, hate-riddled Eamon Collins, Jr., a villainous individual overdrawn and overplayed to the point where he could compete with the blackest of individuals to be found in the annals of Victorian melodrama.
The final worker is the titular “blowin,” a Nigerian immigrant, Laurence, who is forced to use the name Lionel, and stay out of sight as possible, because he has been hired illegally.
A “blowin,” it soon becomes clear, is someone whose hiring is questionable or worse, so the term relates, to a degree, to what unionized American workers mean when they refer to “scabs.”
It is, predictably enough, on Laurence/Lionel that Noone’s thudding plot turns, particularly since he has been hired by the G.C. to fill a slot the wretched prejudice-laden Eamon had hoped would go to a seemingly defective cousin of his.
Noone’s subject, obviously, is the racial hatred and fear of strangers he finds present in the working class Irishman, more or less the equivalent of the prejudice one might expect to find rampant in certain classes virtually anywhere in the world, alas.
The playwright, unfortunately, has layered “Blowin” with village hostilities and grudges going back at least to the last generation or two, sufficient in number and hostility to fuel the plots of perhaps half a dozen roaring melodramas.
The anger, threats and attempts at score-settling is “The Blowin of Baile Ball” are of a quantity and an intensity that, particularly along about the fifth or sixth of the play’s eight scenes, giggles and undesired laughs begin to be heard in the audience.
The provisioner father of the former expatriate, the G.C., had refused to give Eamon’s shopkeeper mother six eggs of credit because of an outstanding bill she couldn’t settle.
The woman’s death put “paid” to the indebtedness, but not before the eggs had hatched into indelible loathing of the sort than can spread and, in Noone’s view, poison the life of the town where the incident took place.
The G.C’s American wife apparently dislikes Ireland, causing a chill in the marriage, warmed to some extent by a growing fondness between the returnee and the English woman who owns the house where the work is being done.
Or, rather, not being done. The first seven scenes take place in the rubble-strewn kitchen, well designed by Richard Chambers as a world of exposed lathing, fractured plaster board, and two varieties of floral and fruited wallpaper, one as unappealing as the other.
In his first play, “The Lepers of Baile Baiste,” produced off-Broadway last season, Noone populated a local pub with characters so filled with hatred and unilateral self-loathing that it was tempting to wonder why any of them returned to the bar after the production’s intermission.
This time, he has created a work site devoid of even the merest hint that any labor is being accomplished, or ever will be. It is, after all, a play, with characters who, logically or not, air their grievances during lunch breaks and other quiet moments.
Not that there is much quiet in the play, apart from Stephen’s near total immersion in the pocket sized Bible he keeps with him at all times, and into which he delves whenever the opportunity presents itself.
The text, or most of it, is delivered at the top of the actors’ voices as their angers and their unsettled scores, not to mention their unquenchable fondness for outright malice, take center stage.
For the most part, Boston-based director David Sullivan, who has worked with Noone before and appears to be his director of choice, cannot be faulted, with one rather flagrant example, for his handling of the actors and of the play-as-given.
Colin Hamell as Eamon, and Ciaran Crawford, as the cloddish, repressed Stephen, are, like Sullivan, Noone veterans. Susan B. McConnell, the production’s sensible Molly, has recently relocated from Boston to Los Angeles.
George C. Heslin, the “G.C.,” is a familiar figure on the Irish-oriented stages of New York and vicinity, having recently done good work in a production of Maire Jones’ “Stones in His Pockets” at the venerable Penguin Rep in Rockland County’s Stony Point.
Ato Essandoh’s Laurence/Lionel is, most of the time, the play’s intelligent, rigorously contained, silent center. This imposing African-born actor, a New York resident, for, as the theater’s program puts it, “the past few years,” has undeniable stage presence.
Essandoh, powerful, articulate and clearly intelligent, has here been given, it must be noted, the “noble savage” role done in the films of recent decades, first by Sydney Poitier, and, more recently, Morgan Freeman.
Hamell, as the unbalanced, relentless Eamon, a creature of unalloyed evil, has been saddled with an outrageously overwritten role, and then, urged, or perhaps merely allowed, to play it flat out, hell-for-leather, with not the slightest suggestion of subtlety.
The result is the kind of poisonous performance utterly devoid of shades of gray, that makes an audience wonder why the work’s other characters have tolerated him for so long, or, better still, why they hadn’t pooled their lunch money and taken out a contract on his life.
Without doubt Ronan Noone can write. “The Blowin of Baile Gall,” despite its excesses and its blunderbuss relentlessness and coarseness, is a clear step forward from “The Lepers of Baile Baiste.” His ear for the village vulgarities of ordinary speech seems sharp, even as the result points up another oddity about the play.
Much is made of being an insider or an outsider, depending on where a character was born, or how long he or she has lived in a particular place, but the play gives no inkling as to the specific, or even the general, location of the town Noone calls Baile Gall.
The playwright, still young, has been away from Ireland for much of his adulthood. He seems to be writing of an Ireland of the imagination, much as Martin McDonagh, who was born and raised in England, is, having “created” a town he calls Leenane.
Contrary to the advice handed out in college writing classes, it isn’t always necessary for writers to write about that they “know.” Stephen Crane wrote a great work, “The Red Badge of Courage,” without having had any kind of personal exposure to the American Civil War, which was the book’s subject.
If “The Blowin of Baile Gall” is, at the very least, clearer and more genuinely compelling than “The Lepers of Baile Baiste,” there’s probably reason to look forward to “The Gigolo Confessions of Baile Breag” with a certain sense of hopeful anticipation.

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