The Home Place
by Brian Friel
New York Premiere
Irish Repertory Theatre
directed by Charlotte Moore
Extended through December 17, 2017
Set design: James Noone
Costume design: David Toser
Lighting design: Michael Gottlieb
Sound design: Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab
Properties: Sven Henry Nelson
Original music: Ryan Rumery
Dialects: Stephen Gabis
Hair & wig design: Robert-Charles Vallance
Casting: Deborah Brown
Assistant to the director: Conor Bagley
Production stage manager: Pamela Brusoski
Assistant stage manager: Rebecca C. Monroe
Logan Riley Bruner – Tommy Boyle
Andrea Lynn Green – Sally Cavanagh
Johnny Hopkins – Con Doherty
Robert Langdon Lloyd – Clement O’Donnell
Ed Malone – David Gore
Polly McKie – Mary Sweeney
Rachel Pickup – Margaret O’Donnell
Stephen Pilkington – Perkins
Christopher Randolph – Dr. Richard Gore
Gordon Tashjian – Johnny McLoone
John Windsor-Cunningham – Christopher Gore
You have five more days to see—or to see again—the New York premiere of Brian Friel’s late masterpiece, The Home Place, in its extended run. Between the rich language of the play—subtly heightened, but idiomatic to contemporary ears and sounding entirely convincing in the mouths of Irish and Anglo-Irish English-speakers of 1878—James Noone’s evocative set, the unfailing precision and feeling of the actors, and Charlotte Moore’s crisp direction, it provided the most absorbing and moving evening in the theater of the year.
One might consider it an old-fashioned play. Its story is historical. Most of the characters who appear on stage are fully developed in the round (with the exception of two Irish insurgents and perhaps the English butler, Perkins, who may be a bit of a caricature, but a colorful one). The rest of the characters unfold in multi-dimensional splendor. The core desires of the two primary male characters, the father and son, Christopher and David Gore, orbit around the chatelaine (or, more plainly, housekeeper) of the house, Margaret O’Donnell. The Gores have been settled in Ballybeg (Friel’s imaginary exemplar of an Irish small town) as Anglo-Irish landowners for centuries, but their “home place” in Kent has by no means faded from their ken—at present rather unpleasantly manifested in the visit of their cousin Richard, from the branch of the family which remained in Kent. Margaret, who is from local Irish stock, was brought to the Gores as a child for her upbringing in the hopes of her rising in society among the English. And in fact that has come to pass. She has made herself indispensable at the manor house, where she is regarded as a member of the family, and she has most decidedly thrown in her lot with them. In fact both father and sons are in love with her and want to marry her. We hear a good deal about her father, Clement O’Donnell, his fondness for drink and his musical gifts as choirmaster at the local school, and when he makes appearance, well into his cups, we experience Margaret’s abhorrence for his drunkenness and her fervent desire to distance herself from her natural family. Now Christopher Gore is also given to the bottle, but in his own superficially milder English way—a pleasure he can amply cultivate with his academic cousin, Richard. They get “squiffy” together. Both the Irish and the English are steeped in their tribal forms of alcoholism. Margaret is admirable in her competence, strength, and dignity, and she wins our affection as well. The one person who can actually undermine her poise is her father, who is the one artistic person we meet in Ballybeg and quite possibly the most immediately likable, even lovable. At the very worst, he proves a trifle irritating. Margaret can hardly bear to be in the same room with him and his inebriation, and we have to accept that as something in the family.
Christopher shows his dark side in his constant putting down of his son, who is literally a rival, but his signal virtue consists of his decency and kindness as a landlord. He treats his tenants fairly and as human beings. He is as well-liked as an English landowner in Ireland can be. At the beginning of the play, he is coming from the funeral of a rather different example of his kind. Cruel, niggardly, and unbending towards his tenants, the deceased was universally hated—at the very least frowned upon by his English compeers—and targeted by the Irish to be murdered as an example—a sign that “natives” have run out of tolerance for occupation.
I felt a certain shock, as the relationship between the Anglo-Irish and their Irish subjects became more apparent—equally true for the assassinated tyrant as for the kindlier Gores. This is brought home by the monstrous Dr. Richard Gore, an anthropologist, who has spent his adult lifetime travelling about the Empire performing anthropometric examinations on its multitudinous peoples. Having worked in Africa, India, and elsewhere, he now pays a visit to his cousin, fully equipped with his measuring gear and a camera, all operated by his man, Perkins. (A gentleman should never touch machinery.) Christopher and his household reluctantly cooperated, tepidly recruiting a few tenant farmers to submit to Richard’s calipers, motivated by the reward of a free photograph or a handout. Christopher, David, and Margaret run out of patience, and the intrusion of young Irish insurgents disrupts the proceedings. Christopher tells Richard to leave, and he and his son are left to sort things out with Margaret, and the future of the Gores of Ballybeg is opened.
I have not yet mentioned the Irish housemaid, Sally Cavanagh, who, unlike Perkins, is one of the most detailed, rounded, grounded, and interesting characters in the play, and her fiancé, Con Doherty, an insurgent most unwelcome in the house, follows at a respectable distance behind. She is a valued member of the household, and a generation before she might have passed her life serving the Gores, but she loves Con, who, as attached as he is to her, clearly places politics on a higher level. She leaves the household to join him, possibly as his wife, eventually.
This family story is fraught with change—in relationships, class status, and social roles. The life of the Gores in Ireland cannot go on as it did for generations, as decent members of the community as they are. Their way of life is coming to an end. While politics and history are a tangible part of The Home Place, we feel their effect most deeply through the lives of the characters, as they sort out the conflicts between tradition, duty, and their personal affinities. Margaret would find stability and position in marrying Christopher, but she loves David, who, though not all that young, is still a boy at the mercy of his enthusiasms and cloudy ideals. There must be a certain impractical motherliness in her attraction to the son, leaving the father only the hope of not being ignored and left with nothing in life but to die and clear the way for the next generation. Margaret will have to deal with this.
If this story reminds you of Chekhov, the scene in which trees are marked for cutting down will make the relationship to The Cherry Orchard clear. The Home Place is very much Friel’s creation, and it is full of his own Irish energy, both psychological and political. As much devotion as he has shown to the Russian master in his translations and adaptations, and his explicit hommage, the play lies outside Chekhov’s shadow. It is more overtly political, it is based on specific historical events, and it is more energetic in the clashes of its characters. If that comes from the Irish and English temperament, as opposed to the Russian, there is the profound historical circumstance that the Revolution of 1917 made the social groups depicted by Chekhov irrelevant if not extinct, whereas the seismic shifts of The Home Place lead directly and practically to the present day, through generations of struggle, violence, and political work. This nominally historical play is directly relevant to Irish issues today. Brian Friel was the political playwright par excellence, with his ability to reach into this ever-present history and his passionate espousal of his own opinions. Objectivity is the death of political theater.
Now my account of the play and its characters derives from what I saw on the splendid new stage at the Irish Rep. My understanding of the play is entirely based on what Ms. Moore and her magnificent cast have served me. What the stage at the Irish Rep lacks in breadth, it compensates in depth. Moore took full advantage of this to coordinate action which never seemed crowded or unclear. Entrances, exits, and beginnings and ends were incisive and energetic, whilst the Chekhovian subtext could have inspired a dreamy mood and a pervasive vagueness. Friel’s people are never aimless and bored. Even poor David, who doesn’t have a determined or practical grasp of what he wants to do in life, has plenty of energy, as eccentrically, brilliantly played by Ed Malone. He and his father Christopher, played with elegance and engaging pathos by John Windsor-Cunningham, as an obsolescent fixture of heredity, who does his best, supported and constrained by the idées reçues of his class, although he realizes to some degree their limitations. His love for the much-younger Margaret is understandable—actually the more practical course for her—but he is indeed nearing the end of his active life. The shift in Margaret’s role from potential wife to tactful daughter-in-law is deeply poignant. Rachel Pickup negotiated the complexities of Margaret to perfection. Her character is strong, often tough, a fugitive from the intolerable conditions she was born in, but as sympathetic as any human being can be. One can’t quite say that the figure of Margaret holds the play together, because there are many more factors involved—particularly Friel’s craftsmanship—but she is the sun around which the other characters revolve, and Rachel Pickup’s voice, movement, and psychological imagination fill the position brilliantly. She is more than a credit to her father, Ronald Pickup, who to my mind is one of the great actor’s actors, with his powerful understatement and beautiful voice.
Christopher Randolph was appropriately, not villainously, odious as Dr. Richard Gore, short-sighted and obsessive, deeply prejudiced. Randolph achieved the difficult task of portraying him as an intolerable bore without ever being boring—and, what’s more, he steered clear of all the Blimpish clichés.
This was a consistently excellent work of ensemble playing, and the entire cast was superb, but individually I’ll stop at Andrea Lynn Green, who gave a complex and shaded portrayal of Sally Cavanagh, the housemaid—her long-familiar, but recently constrained relations with her employers because of her relationship with a trouble-maker, who is especially detested by Margaret.
The Home Place is a noble keystone in the career of a great artist, brilliantly performed. Not much time left…