Category: Archive

Story as sustenance

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The actor’s participation in the Beckett Festival was relatively modest, in that he appeared in only two fairly slight plays, “That Time” and “A Piece of Monologue.” Doing “Monologue,” in the actor’s words, was “like jumping off a cliff blindfolded.”
For whatever reasons, Hickey didn’t play the Beckett role for which he is most widely known, namely Vladimir in the playwright’s “Waiting for Godot.” It’s a part for which the lanky actor, with his long frame and his expressive face and excellent voice, would seem ideally suited.
This time around, Hickey is back in town and starring in a one-actor play, “The Gallant John-Joe,” written by his friend and longtime colleague Tom MacIntyrne. The play, currently in previews at the Irish Arts Center, will open officially on St. Patrick’s Day.
Recently, during a break in rehearsal, the actor and the playwright discussed the play’s decade-long revision process and the change of title from “The Chirpaun” – literally, an illegitimate baby — to “The Gallant John Joe.”
The title of the show refers to famed Cavan footballer John-Joe O’Reilly, the legendary GAA player who led his team to victory in the 1947 All-Ireland final. The game was played at New York’s storied Polo Grounds, which cemented O’Reilly’s reputation as a GAA superstar. Hickey’s character, John-Joe Concannon, is obsessed with his famous namesake, constantly measuring his own life against that of his late idol.
“O’Reilly was the captain of the Cavan team,” explained Hickey. “He’s John-Joe’s hero and he comes in and out of the play. Anytime he’s depressed or inclined to be looking down, he’s able to rely on his invocation of John-Joe O’Reilly and his genius as a footballer.”
The play has an unusual history. Written in the 1990s, the show was originally titled “The Chirpaun.” It was a rather conventional work, including a cast of six characters. “The Chirpaun” was produced by Ireland’s National Theatre at the Peacock Theatre, with Hickey in the starring role.
“‘Chirpaun’ refers to a child in a cradle,” MacIntyre said. “[It refers to] an infant, with the whiff of illegitimacy.”
Despite the Irish-style spelling and pronunciation, “Chirpaun” is not an official part of the language.
“The ‘aun’ is a classic Gaelic ending,” MacIntyre said, “but I believe the ‘chirp’ comes from the English expression for the sound a small bird makes when it’s chirping.”
The writer first encountered the word in the writings of Tim Pat Coogan. The famous biographer had coined the term to identify a man with a reputation for playing around with the ladies and scattering “chirpauns” in all directions.
MacIntyre found inspiration in the word, and used it as the title of his play about a country farmer and his pregnant, unmarried daughter. But the Peacock Theater’s initial production of “The Chirpaun” didn’t entirely satisfy the author or the actor.
“For various reasons, it just didn’t quite do what it should have done,” Hickey said.
“Some plays work,” added MacIntyre, “and some plays just don’t.”
What did work, in Hickey’s opinion, were the sections that focused on the main character, John-Joe Concannon.
“There were some arias and some speeches that were wonderfully well-written,” said Hickey. “So I went to the author and, in a way, commissioned a one-man version of the story. I wanted further revelations about John-Joe.”
MacIntyre set to work revamping the play, focusing solely on the main character. The other characters’ appearances were cut, though they live on in references to incidents culled from “The Chirpaun.”
Hickey visited MacIntyre repeatedly over the space of about a year in the interests of shaping the play.
“Tom kept writing,” he said, “and we ended up with a text, and two years ago we took it on tour. This last summer, we went to the Edinburgh Festival.”
“John-Joe is a man who’s a familiar figure,” said the actor. “You’d find [him] in any Irish town, big or small.”
John-Joe’s life is thrown off-kilter when his daughter’s pregnancy causes a scandal in their small country town. Her refusal to reveal the name of the baby’s father enrages him. Where some would call on Divine Providence for inspiration, John-Joe invokes the memory of his sainted footballer
The key to John-Joe’s audience appeal is his extraordinary eloquence. Hickey imbues the character with an inner dignity that belies his volatile exterior.
“John-Joe Concannon is an extraordinary storyteller,” said Hickey. “That’s what keeps him going.”
MacIntyre agrees.
“It’s his salvation, at this hour of his life, with the Grim Reaper peering over the horizon,” said the director.
“John-Joe Concannon is just trying to figure out what life is all about,” Hickey added.
The voyage of discovery will continue at the NYC’s Irish Arts Center this month. The theater sits just a mile or two from the site of John-Joe O’Reilly’s legendary triumph. The gallant John-Joes – both of them – would probably approve.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese