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Theatre in Review: The Home Place (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Rachel Pickup. Photo Carol Rosegg.

For his final original work -- he closed his career with an adaptation of Hedda Gabler -- Brian Friel, Ireland's contemporary bard of exile and displacement, focused on an Anglo-Irish family of landowners who, having lived for generations in County Donegal, discover that they have planted their roots in shallow, rocky soil. It's 1878, a cultural renaissance looms, and the natives in Friel's fictional town of Ballybeg are fed up with playing their part in a way of life governed by noblesse oblige. The signs are ominous: The nearby lord of the manor has been killed in a driving accident that almost certainly was an act of murder. Christopher Gore, a well-off planter, fears that there's a prospective list of victims and he may be next on it. His housekeeper, Margaret O'Donnell, tries to dismiss such ideas, but we've already seen a couple of young men prowling the grounds, clearly up to no good. Margaret nervously orders her pert housemaid, Sally, to bring in the chickens, as there is a falcon at large; even in nature, a predatory atmosphere prevails.

Even without this undertone of malice, the Gore household is riddled with thwarted desires. Christopher -- edgy, forgetful, conflict-averse, a once-handsome specimen of a man now going to seed -- is eaten up with loneliness and has cast his eye on Margaret, who is less than half his age. Margaret -- forever moving briskly through the house, scooping up unwanted emotions along with the used tea things -- is in love with David, Christopher's son, a tense, giddy, impulsive greyhound of a man. The young lovers discuss, in desultory fashion, running off to some other corner of the world, but they are tied to Ballybeg by a combination of dependency, tradition, and a deep-seated sense of stasis. Margaret is a woman delicately poised on a precipice. Her position puts her at the dinner table with Christopher and David, but she is still a Ballybeg native. A houseguest waits until she withdraws before discussing personal matters; after all, there some things you don't mention in front of the servants.

That guest is Richard, Christopher's cousin, an anthropologist, ethnologist, and devotee of the era's crank scientific theories about racial character traits, backing them up with dubious physical data -- the sizes of his subjects' crania, their eye colors and nostril widths. Richard, a human steam engine emitting thick clouds of intellectual pretension, is on his way to the Aran Islands, where he intends to make an intensive study of the locals, but he decides to practice on the citizens of Ballybeg. Christopher does his best to oblige, rounding up his tenants, but the word is out about this humiliating pseudoscientific exercise, which is why those sullen lads are lying in wait.

There's a lot going on in The Home Place, but it ultimately feels like a finger exercise from the autumn of a great playwright's career; despite the plot's explosive implications, it is marked by a hushed, hesitant quality that prevents us from fully taking in his characters' longings and anxieties. This is especially true of the scene in which Richard measures several human specimens, sparking a furious intervention by angry townsmen; it is surprisingly lacking in tension and menace. The oddly tentative atmosphere is exacerbated by Charlotte Moore's rather perfunctory staging, despite several strong performances. Leading the way is Rachel Pickup, captivating as Margaret, who is caught between social classes and entangled with both generations of Gores. Some of her best effects are wordless; the sound of a town's children's choir pierces her hyperefficient fa├žade, causing her to stare into the distance, her eyes welling up with tears of nostalgia. In an instant, we see how she travels between two worlds, belonging to neither.

John Windsor-Cunningham is equally fine as Christopher, who feels his position in Ballybeg eroding over the course of a very long and troublesome day. Ed Malone deftly conveys David's passion and his immaturity; one strongly suspects that if he and Margaret get together, there will be plenty of trouble ahead. Robert Langdon Lloyd is compelling as Margaret's alcoholic father, the local choir director, who shows up long enough to make clear to one and all his daughter's dilemma. The character of Richard is such a blowhard and a bore that it's a pity Friel allows him to blather on so much, but Christopher Randolph gives him an honest rendering. Among the servant classes, Stephen Pilkington is solid as Richard's butler, the very image of his employer's self-importance, and Andrea Lynn Green offers a piquant turn as Sally, on whom nothing is lost.

A sense of the land is fundamental to this play's success, so it's good news that James Noone has provided a stunning cutaway view of the Gores' parlor, surrounded by lush green forest, and that Michael Gottlieb has lit it with his usual sensitivity. David Toser's costumes provide each character with a precise location on the social scale. The original incidental music, by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab, is reasonably effective but jarringly loud.

Even if The Home Place isn't really satisfying, one can be grateful to the Irish Rep, which has done so well by Friel in the past, for at last bringing us this 2005 drama. And it is fascinating to see the playwright, in his final days, seeking new ways of expressing the themes that drove his writing for nearly four decades. The title, by the way, refers to Kent, the Gore family seat and spiritual home; as the play ends, it is receding in Christopher's memory even as his place in Ireland seems increasingly threatened. For him, as for so many of Friel's characters, home is the thing that is forever out of reach. -- David Barbour

(13 October 2017)

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