Hugh Leonard’s Da, Revived at the Irish Repertory Theatre

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Ciaran O'Reilly as Charlie and Paul O’Brien as Da in the Irish Rep's revival of Hugh Leonard's play.

Ciaran O’Reilly as Charlie and Paul O’Brien as Da in the Irish Rep’s revival of Hugh Leonard’s play.

by Hugh Leonard
Irish Repertory Theatre

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Sean Gormley – Drumm
Kristin Griffith – Mrs. Prynne
John Keating – Oliver
Nicola Murphy – Mary Tate, “The Yellow Peril”
Paul O’Brien – Da (Nick Tynan)
Ciarán O’Reilly – Charlie
Adam Petherbridge – Young Charlie
Fiana Toibin – Mother (Maggie Tynan)

Artistic Staff:
Charlotte Moore, Director
James Morgan, Scenic Design
Linda Fisher, Costume Design
Michael Gottlieb, Lighting Design
Zach Williamson, Sound Design
Steven Gabis, Dialect Coach
Robert Charles-Vallance, Hair & Wigs
Pamela Brusoski, Production Stage Manager
Melanie Morgan, Assistant Stage Manager

After its impressive fall production of Conor McPherson’s Port Authority (2001), the Irish Rep has moved on to an older play from an older generation, Hugh Leonard’s Da (1978), which was a huge success in New York and on a ten-month American tour, winning all three of the major Best Play awards in 1978, the Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics’ Circle, and the Tony. It premiered off-off Broadway, soon transferred to the Morosco Theatre on Broadway (which fell prey to the wrecker’s ball shortly afterwards) and almost became a New York institution over its 687 performances. It was made into an American film in 1988, with Martin Sheen playing Charlie opposite Barnard Hughes, who created the role of Da on stage. If Conor McPherson is one of the lights of contemporary Irish theater, well-established in London, Hugh Leonard (the pen name of John Keyes Byrne, born in 1928 and raised in Dalkey, a southern coastal suburb of Dublin, only a few miles east of Samuel Beckett’s Foxrock, was for years a popular, if prickly figure on stage and in journalism. Hugh Leonard first found professional success as a playwright in the mid-1950s, becoming after that a fixture on the Dublin stage. He worked for a while for Granada Television in England, eventually developing parallel careers on stage, in television, and in film. He was enormously prolific in these fields, in addition to his activity as a newspaper columnist, novelist, and memoirist. Leonard and McPherson, two generations apart, still experienced the same Ireland—most literally apparent in the life Joe, the eldest of the heroes of Port Authority. Both playwrights are equally sharp in their critique of Irish traditional life and equally aware of how it lingers on, no matter what the changes in Ireland, no matter how long the Irish émigré may hide from it abroad. The contemporary global perspective so attractively presented in the Irish Art Center’s beloved Christmas show remains an intelligently optimistic variant of this today.

While persistent lack of focus, drive, and success haunts three generations of Irishmen in Port Authority, the lack of ambition, conservatism, provincialism, submissiveness both to the Church and to the Protestant “quality,” and the pervasive stasis of Old Ireland just won’t go away, like the ghost of Charlie’s “Da,” his adoptive father in Hugh Leonard’s play. He is haunted by a man who wasn’t even his natural father. While this may seem symbolic, this was Leonard’s (or rather Jack Byrne’s) own experience, for Da is an autobiographical play. For his screen adaptation, Leonard even fleshed it out with passages from his memoirs. In addition to his portrait of life in Co. Dublin from the late 1930s to the mid-1960’s, Leonard put on stage a self-portrait of himself as a prominent public literary figure, whose very fame sets him apart and conjoins him with his public. This can’t have been apparent to the original American audiences who adopted the play so whole-heartedly in the late 1970s. For them this must have been somewhat blurred and universalized, and for contemporary New Yorkers Hugh Leonard as a public figure either belongs to history or is totally forgotten. But both then and now, Da, that ignorant old boor, is a rather entertaining companion for the evening, although he does remind one of those loveable old chaps who will con you into buying him one drink after another, so he can repeat such and such a story all over again.

One of the most admirable qualities of this play is its total lack of sentimentality, at least as treated by the brilliant director, Charlotte Moore, and the way Leonard has developed his own character, Charlie. Other authors might have let him remain a hollow foil for the colorful remnant of an older generation, but Leonard rounded Charlie out most satisfyingly without indulging in any undue narcissism. Ciarán O’Reilly (co-founder of the company with Charlotte Moore) dove into this difficult part body and soul, standing up to his deceased step-father both as an actor and as a character. The production owed its success to its superb cast and to the director’s impeccable sense of pace—a rather fast pace, partly because the minuscule set afforded the actors only short distances to travel on stage. The design itself was a marvel of compression, but it was cramped nonetheless. Exits and entrances occurred either at the right or the left of the impeccably detailed and aged sitting room of the Tynan’s house, straight back and straight forward. Within the house there was a stairway at the back which was also frequently used by the members of the family. For the most part, Ms. Moore made a virtue of the constricted space, even when there was a jump in time, which some spatial distance might have helped clarify. No matter. It all came across clearly and snappily. As Charlie’s repeated display of Da’s death certificate stresses, the story is all about the old gardner outstaying his welcome, and indeed he does. His way with words, richly turned by Paul O’Brien, is funny and amusing, but old Nick’s wit remains something of a blunt instrument, and after the intermission, I found it palled a bit, but also, here things begin to turn serious. The scene with Nick’s former employer, Mrs. Prynne, who is forced to sell the grand house, where he tended the gardens was sharply pointed and ironic, energized by Kristin Griffith’s colorful, brilliant portrayal of an Anglo-Irish gentlewoman facing reduced circumstances—for which she more than compensates by stiffing old Nick. In addition to £25, she saddles him with an unappetizing, bulky sculpture made in San Francisco with eyeglasses found after the earthquake and fire. The buyers of the house are Catholics, like the Tynans, but of course Nick wouldn’t think of working for Catholics, fearing that they would cheat him. Towards the end, there is more and more talk of roses, set off by his gardening advice to Mrs. Prynne. His knowledge of the ways of rose bushes has a chance to come out, and we begin to see him in the light of the gardener in Richard II, who tends not Ireland, but the other green island across the Irish Sea. Could Leonard’s writing become overly lyrical or mawkish here? If so, Ms. Moore won’t have it. The animated pace doesn’t flag, even at the end.

In Da, the Irish Rep gives us a consistently outstanding cast, seasoned Irish accents, and crack ensemble playing. Adam Petherbridge plays a strong Young Charlie, an unforgiving judge of his middle-aged self. The mature Charlie goes on the defensive more than once under the sharp scrutiny of his younger persona. Sean Gormley revels in the dry cynicism, bordering on despair, of Drumm, the bureaucrat, who becomes a second, rather more effective and appreciated stepfather than ignorant old Nick, as Drumm repeatedly reminds him to his face. Fiana Toibin has broad scope as Mother, beginning with her extensive, self-congratulatory monologue about Charlie’s illegitimacy and consequent disadvantaged position in life, on which she dilates in the most hurtful possible way in front of her young stepson. We can only gape. However, she proves to be at least to some small extent a benevolent presence in Charlie’s upbringing, amidst her squalls with Nick, hypocritical posturing, and general harshness. She is so substantial that it is easy to forget that she is a ghost, just as much as the equally robust presence of Da. Writing in the late 1970s, some ten years after the date of his action, Hugh Leonard summoned up the ghosts of the mid-twentieth century, just as McPherson, reaching back from the year 2000, loosed the internal ghosts of the same period and the following decades.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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