Category: Archive

On the Aisle: Troubles drama as history lesson

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Playwright Devlin, the Belfast-born daughter of the controversial labor leader Paddy Devlin, who died in 2000, has framed her story, whose title is the literal translation of “Sinn Fein,” in no fewer than 15 scenes, set mainly in and around Andersonstown, West Belfast, with brief excursions to South Belfast and Dublin.
In writing this, her first play, Devlin had assigned herself an almost insurmountable task, namely to tell the story of the tough years endured by the city of her birth, using as a medium the stories of a trio of “ordinary” Catholic women whose lives were altered irreparably by ongoing events.
Two are “Andytown” sisters, Frieda and Josie McCoy, while the third is sister-in-law, Donna. Liam McCoy, Donna’s disaffected second husband, is a Long Kesh prisoner in the play’s early scenes. Frieda is a would-be singer and songwriter. The quiet Josie turns out to have a hidden agenda, while the sensible Donna is mainly concerned with providing a calm life environment for her infant daughter, despite the absence of her incarcerated, troubled mate.
The space in which Zablocki’s surprisingly effective staging of Devlin’s play is housed is a small, square area off the lobby of the YMCA on West 63rd Street in Manhattan, a brick-walled room with the audience positioned on three sides of the square where the action takes place.
The playwright lived the years of her youth in an intensely political atmosphere, which is logical, considering who her father was. At one point in “Ourselves Alone,” a character expresses a wish that, in the future, Ireland could be “a thirty-two county worker’s republic,” and, for a moment, it’s almost as though the voice of Paddy Devlin were resounding through the production’s intimate playing area.
Despite the fact that Anne Devlin’s focus in the play is on the private lives of three closely observed women, still-young citizens of West Belfast, “Ourselves Alone” emerges as something of a history lesson.
This may prove to be a bit of a stumbling block for audience members too young to have been around when the play’s events were taking place, namely the “early 1980s,” and, in particular, “late summer into winter” of a single year.
There were, at the time, so many political factions and sub-factions that certain aspects of “Ourselves Alone” are bound to remain a bit murky, even for individuals with a generally effective overview of the political situation operative in Northern Ireland in the most difficult years of the Troubles.
Even if it’s frequently difficult to be entirely certain where Devlin’s characters stand in the political world, the personal lives of Frieda, Josie and Donna are more than capable of holding the audience’s attention, with at least a few moments verging on the blatantly soap operatic. These women, after all, were private entities, and men played roles in each of their complicated lives.
One of the most compelling threads in Devlin’s fabric concerns Josie, well-played by Alison King, and her somewhat enigmatic relationship with a puzzling Englishman, Joe Conran, who enters the lives of the play’s central characters without warning. Conran is strongly rendered by the charismatic Darren Kendrick, playing a character who brings with him more questions that he is willing, or perhaps able, to answer.
Playwright Devlin manages to leave Conran’s actual identity, not to mention his true intentions, something of an open question through the course of her narrative.
As a tyro dramatist, Devlin thought nothing of populating her play with no fewer than 17 characters, posing a thorny problem for any director approaching the play with production in mind. The fact that, of the 17, only nine or 10 could be called viable characters offers only partial comfort.
Cully Long’s set design features a large portrait of Bobby Sands, the hunger striker who died in prison in 1981, prominently positioned and illuminated on the show’s brick-backed fourth wall. The image puts Devlin’s intentions in a crystalline light from the outset.
Sands’s death, along with the deaths of nine of his colleagues, motivated increased support for the political wings of the Provisional IRA.
Director Zablocki uses 14 actors to portray Devlin’s 17 characters, a few of whom are identified only as “First Policeman,” Second Soldier” and so forth. Twelve of his actors are members of the Terrapin Troupe, which co-produced “Ourselves Alone,” while only two cast members are tagged as being members of Actors’ Equity Association.
The overall performance level of Zablocki’s production is high, with particularly strong work being turned in by, in addition to the aforementioned King and Kendrick, Sari Caine as Donna, the McCoy sisters’ superficially phlegmatic sister-in-law, and by Kristin Vogelsong, as the selfish, flighty Frieda, who considers southern Ireland “a foreign country,” and whose concentration is mainly on her questionable “singing career,” a goal that will lead her to London and away from Belfast, probably forever.
Sean Eager’s Malachy McCoy is a credible father figure, with just enough edginess to make him come across as being slightly dangerous. Similarly, Marc Garber’s intense, jumpy Liam McCoy, when he finally shows up in Devlin’s tale, having been sprung from Long Kesh, suggests the reasons for the inherent uneasiness of his wife, Donna.
Kevin G. Shinnick is effective as Josie’s former love, the ulcer-ridden Cathal O’Donnell, as is Bob Kruse as John McDermott, Frieda’s political activist boyfriend, who complains that his self-centered girlfriend doesn’t bother to read the pamphlets she delivers under his supervision.
Josh Rosalls’s sound design is subtle and effective, with the sound of helicopters hovering overhead heard only once, as a mere suggestion of the strong subconscious factor in Belfast life surveillance had become by the time the days in which “Ourselves Alone” is set had arrived.
When Devlin’s play was staged at the Producer’s Club in January 2001, the part of Frieda was played by Geraldine Hughes, who is currently performing her own solo show, “Belfast Blues,” at Off-Broadway’s Culture Project, at 45 Bleecker St. in Manhattan.

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