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Theatre in Review: Quietly (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Declan Conlon. Photo: James Higgins.

The title of Owen McCafferty's play may seem strange at first, since its two main characters are linked by a legacy of violence and, at long last, they are to settle up with each other, frankly and sometimes furiously laying bare the damage that can't be measured in physical destruction or loss of life. Yet the most riveting moments of Quietly are in fact the most introspective; in its moments of muted reflection, we come to understand how a single act of terrorism can reverberate across decades, the wreckage continuing to spread, quietly and insidiously, inside the perpetrator and his victim.

Actually, Jimmy, whom we meet first, is not a victim per se; you might more accurately call him collateral damage. From the minute he enters the Belfast pub (designed with nice attention to detail by Alyson Cummins), he comes across as a tightly coiled spring in human form. Tall, balding, with a profile sharp enough to cut through reams of paper, he settles down on his usual stool, looking like he might just jump out of his skin. He makes small talk with the Polish barman (Robert Zawadzki, giving a lesson in the fine art of listening on stage) about the World Cup game (Poland versus Northern Ireland) and the relative merits of their country's beers. But, as played by Patrick O'Kane, his determinedly casual air is the thinnest of facades; there's a barely stifled fury in his eyes that would seem to need only the slightest provocation to be unleashed. Thus, there's nothing reassuring about the too-casual way Jimmy says, "There's a man comin' in later on to see me. He wants to talk to me. There might be a bit of trouble with him -- but it's nothin' for you to worry about."

The man in question is Ian, gray of hair and beard, dressed in a bomber jacket, and possessed of a remarkable stillness. He speaks in a low rumble, and, in contrast to Jimmy's determined slouch, stands with an almost military bearing; what really catches one's attention is the haunted look in his eyes. The instant he enters the bar, the atmosphere chills perceptibly. It doesn't improve when Jimmy suddenly, savagely head-butts him. Ian doesn't fight back, however; surprisingly, an uneasy truce prevails. Ian asks, "Do you know why I'm here?" "Oh, I know why you're here," replies Jimmy, "although I'm hopin' it's cancer."

Once again, Ian fails to take the bait and, gradually, we learn why. Both men are 52; thirty-six years earlier, Ian, in thrall to the Ulster Volunteer Force, opened the door of the pub in which they are now standing and hurled a bomb. Instantly killed were the barman and his five Catholic customers -- one of them Jimmy's father. After all these years, Ian has sought out Jimmy to tell him what he did and why. It's too much to say that Ian expects absolution -- but, clearly, a prison sentence and a lifetime of living with his memories have not brought him even a measure of peace. Perhaps, he seems to feel, if he stands face to face with one he has harmed and takes ownership of his actions, some sort of expiation may be possible. Jimmy mockingly calls it "the truth and reconciliation process," refusing to talk to Ian in private, adding, "If this succeeds, we will be seen as the first -- we will be held up as a beacon -- a fuckin' Nobel Prize, maybe."

Behind his harsh words, Jimmy seems to need this attempt at burying the past as much as Ian does. "Bein' sorry has no meaning," he insists, bitterly dismissing any hint of hope, yet he doesn't walk away. Instead, he calls up searing memories of sorting through the rubble of the bombed-out pub with his mother, discovering "my dad's trousers, with one of his legs still in them." The only child of middle-aged parents, being raised to attend university, Jimmy's life was permanently derailed by the incident. "The point is, I hadn't realized they loved each other," he notes in wonderment. He learns just how much, as his mother slips into a decline -- "never met another man and as each year passed gathered up another illness" -- turning Jimmy into a permanent caretaker. With any hopes of higher education dashed, he becomes an electrician and sometime criminal, drifting into solitary middle age.

We don't learn as much about Ian's later life, but there's plenty to take away from the look in the actor Declan Conlon's eyes as Ian recalls the act he can't escape. "I hated how the IRA was destroying my city," he says, adding, of the UVF, "It felt like these men had personally given me an identity," something he never got from the father who died of a heart attack at 43. (The old man was addicted to cigarettes: "Inside our house was always a shitty brown color with the smoke," he says, an image that deftly calls up a world of parental neglect.) Having hurled the bomb, he escaped in a car with a couple of older confederates and was driven to a tavern where, told that he "was a soldier in the war against republicanism," he was offered his choice of several girls, who, the local "top man" told him, "were just doin' their bit." Thus he had sex for the first time, an experience that has sad repercussions many years later.

Quietly is a taut, intensely focused piece, getting immediately down to the business of opening wounds and cauterizing them over the course of a brief, 80-minute running time. (In one of the most searing passages, Jimmy forces Ian to name each of the dead, giving an identity to each of the men he called "fuckin Fenian bastards" before blowing them to smithereens.) Under Jimmy Fay's tense, highly observant direction, Conlon and O'Kane offer stunning performances -- O'Kane zigzagging between savage rage and an unearthly calm and Conlon subtly signaling a world of turbulent emotions under his poker-faced façade. What often looks like a bitter conflict between the two is a necessary process, bringing them, if not to a point of forgiveness, at least to a kind of understanding that may make the pain easier to live with. "This is about us livin' through this together," says Jimmy, and, even if they have never spoken to each other before, in some strange way they have always been connected.

The rest of Quietly -- an Abbey Theatre production, here presented in association with the Public Theater -- is efficiently handled, including the melancholy atmosphere called up by Sinéad McKenna's lighting, and the sounds of soccer hooligans in the street, rendered in Philip Stewart's sound design. Catherine Fay's costumes make their own statement, quietly underlining the fact that Ian, following prison, has been a self-improver while Jimmy has ended up a prisoner of the working class his parents once dreamed he might escape.

It goes without saying that Quietly is only too relevant in this summer of terror; all the more valuable, then, is its eloquent argument that violence solves nothing, instead causing lasting harm to everyone whom it touches. At the performance I attended, it was received with the kind of rapt silence that occurs only when an audience is truly listening, hanging on every word. -- David Barbour

(29 July 2016)

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