THE FLIGHT OF THE EARLS, by Christopher Humble. Directed by John Burke. Starring John Pasha, Steve Bowen, T.R. Shields, Delina Christie, Lauren Lovett Shields, Peter Zazzali and Nicole Dalton. At the Shadow Lane Stage, Lauren K. Woods Theater, Monmouth University, Cedar Avenue, West Long Branch, N.J. Through Aug. 4.
The word “perdition” in the title of director Sam Mendes’s new film, “The Road to Perdition,” refers to eternal damnation, but it’s also the name of a small town in Illinois.
The name of Christopher Humble’s “The Flight of the Earls,” currently in production at the Shadow Lawn Stage, the summer theatre of New Jersey’s Monmouth University, might lead students of Irish history to expect the play to tell the story of the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell, who, in the year 1607, fled Ireland to escape British domination.
The tale of Red Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell was dealt with in one of playwright Brian Friel’s relatively obscure dramas, “Making History.”
Author Humble, however, isn’t writing directly about 17th Century Ireland in “The Flight of the Earls,” but, rather, of a family whose name happens to be Earl, living in County Tyrone in 1971. The link between the distant past and more recent times is, of course, both symbolic and significant.
Specifically, Humble’s drama deals with a trio of working-class brothers secretly involved in an unsuccessful assassination attempt aimed at ending the life of Brian Faulkner, then the prime minister of Northern Ireland.
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“The Flight of the Earls,” reportedly given a New York production in 1984, is set in the most violent period of the ongoing conflict between the forces favoring the unification of Ireland and loyalist powers. It was the time of the harshest behavior on the part of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, not to mention the internment of a great many individuals without charges.
These were also the days of a definite increase in “terrorist” activity on the part of the IRA, which is the subject of Humble’s play.
The “flight” these particular Earls have in mind, either directly or indirectly, is a move to the U.S., the passionate desire particularly of Brigitte, the wife of Michael, the nominal leader of the three siblings. Michael himself has no desire to settle in New York, fearing that he and his innocent wife will end up in “someplace with a name like the Bronx.”
Michael and his brother Ian are active IRA men, while their younger brother, Keith, is, by report, a prisoner in Long Kesh, and the family, particularly Brigitte, who has a job, has ostensibly been sending him money through the intercession of a prison guard.
In truth, however, the money Michael’s wife, and the others, including her sister Claire have been scraping together has been used by the two older brothers for the purchase of guns and ammunition, quantities of which are stockpiled in a “secret” room, hacked out of a space below the floor of the garage of the Earl brothers’ mother, whose house is the play’s sole setting.
The mother, Kate Earl, who describes herself as “the best cook in the Six Counties,” has given shelter to Timothy Strain, the possibly mildly retarded younger brother of Brigitte and Claire.
When the boy accidentally discovers the hidden space, the gullible Brigitte realizes that her husband has been deceiving her, and that Keith Earl is not imprisoned at all, but has been in hiding, forbidden to come anywhere near his mother’s home, a vow he violates at the close of the first of the play’s two acts.
In the second half of the play, “The Flight of the Earls” disintegrates into shameless melodrama, sacrificing whatever claim it had previously made on even reasonable credibility.
That’s a pity, since as long as the play holds to a steady storytelling course, the production, directed by John Burke, the head of Monmouth’s Department of Music and Theatre Arts, is crisp, compelling and well-acted.
This is the fifth season of Shadow Lawn Stage productions, with a decided emphasis on Irish plays, including, in earlier summers, Conor McPherson’s “The Weir,” Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa,” and J.M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World.”
This is the first time, however, that Monmouth has hired members of Actors Equity, the performers’ union. Four Equity actors signed on for the group’s three-play series, this year’s earlier shows having been Patrick Hamilton’s “Angel Street,” and John Patrick Shanley’s “Pschopathia Sexualis.”
The professional actors appeared in each production, except in a couple of cases when one or another of them functioned as director. Each play’s cast was augmented by at least one Monmouth student, in the case of “The Flight of the Earls” Steve Bowen, doing a highly commendable job as Timothy, the boy who stumbles onto the family secret.
Burke’s Equity actors, all excellent and well-cast, are T.R. Shields and Lauren Lovett Shields, who are husband and wife in private life, as the play’s embattled pair, Michael and Brigitte, the powerful John Pasha as Ian, and the wiry Peter Zazzali as Keith, the youngest of the Earls.
Delina Christie and Nicole Dalton offer strong support as, respectively, the Earl matriarch, Kate, and Brigitte’s younger sister, Claire.
Designer Robert R. Sweetnam has provided a credible and appropriate working-class Irish interior, complete to a requisite image of John F. Kennedy hanging in a prominent spot on the stairway wall.
— Joseph Hurley