In an election year, when civil rights, economic disparities, and social consequences are on everyone’s mind, this 1973 drama is as relevant as the incident that inspired it. The play not only depicts a political tragedy through experience of three of its innocent victims, a number that allows us to grasp and empathize, but reflects on the vicissitudes of “justice,” through the British inquiry that followed. Brian Friel takes us back and forth in time between Guild Hall mayor’s offices where a few protestors have taken refuge, to courtroom proceedings, the victim’s church memorial, and to a classroom where a somewhat patronizing sociologist comments on the effects of abject poverty. This is a powerful piece of theater.
On Bloody Sunday, a banned 1972 Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march in which the playwright participated, a British regiment opened fire resulting in the deaths of 13 participants. Two inquiries were held. The first, the one represented here, cleared soldiers and authorities of blame, making presumptions and citing conflicting witness reports. The second, 12 years later, found the regiment “bordering on reckless,” and the killings “unjustified.” Upon the report’s release, Prime Minister David Cameron made a formal apology. Not one of those killed were found to be armed.
YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY is scrawled on the barbwire-lined walls of the theater. Two British soldiers in camouflage stand alert and ready with rifles. Sounds of an angry crowd are omnipresent. Hi-beams flash. We hear church bells, breaking glass. Soldiers in gas masks swarm and retreat. Blinded and felled, Skinner, a homeless, unemployed, apparently educated workingman, Michael, an idealistic 22 year-old student, and Lily, a 43 year-old mother of 11, help one another into the closest shelter.
Only after they’ve relaxed into temporary relief do the three strangers discover where they are. Class difference is illuminated by immediate reactions to surroundings. Finding the suite has a bathroom and shower, Lily talks wistfully about the luxury of once a week ablutions at her mother-in-law’s. The very door handles are admired. Skinner breaks into a well-stocked liquor cabinet and he and Lily begin to imbibe. “Since it was British troops who got me off the streets, the least they can do is to placate me.”
While Michael is nervous and proper, the others settle in with good humor to wait until it’s safe to exit. Skinner is sharp and flip. He dresses in magistrate’s robes and avails himself of cigars. Lily joins him, gradually opening up. Phone calls are made almost as pranks. They talk of the roughness and resignation of their lives and eventually why they marched. Skinner reads excerpts from reports adding caustic observation. (Some of this could appear in newspapers today.) Outside chaos reigns. Eventually threats are made by soldiers outside the Hall and the trio are told to come out with their hands up. By now, we know them well.
Supporting players are consistently fine, but three terrific characterizations are the heart and guts of this play. Cara Seymour (Lily) creates a gentle, sympathetic, maternal portrayal. Her Lily has been beaten to submission by deprivation and hard work. The character’s pleasure in rare, unhurried, respectful communication, not to mention a little innocent fun, is manifest by the actress with both small registrations and loosening of body language. Even overall warmth increases. An unexpectedly tender bond with Skinner feels real. Unfortunately, Seymour’s heavy accent obscures a good part of her early dialogue.
James Russell (Michael) is completely credible as a stubborn, young man who believes in the system and, likely, the overall good of man. His natural, low key performance acts to balance Skinner’s flamboyance and Lily’s coping mechanisms. His annoyance at circumstances and fate’s companions is palpable and tinted by fear.
Joseph Sikora (Skinner) embodies a living, breathing man. Every move, from the two second resist before he goes back out to rescue Michael whom Lily has seen laying in the street, to his increasingly manic behavior in anticipation of finally leaving Guildhall, tracks back to a specific personality. The mercurial Sikora clowns, incisively comments on their situation and prowls his environs like a feral animal. A spirited and skilled performance.
Director Ciarán O’Reilly takes us from the intimacy of chambers to the immersion in surrounding threat with soldiers in the aisle. Locations/time changes flow seamlessly. Actors are focused, dialogue is well paced. The balladeer (Clark Carmichael) is a nice textural touch alluding to the event’s legendary interpretation. It’s with his confined players real finesse is applied, however. Each actor moves, speaks and relates as the individual he is. Skinner and Lily’s reactions to one another are especially well realized. Physical business is sympathetic and original without being obvious.
Charlie Corcoran’s wonderful Set Design occupies three sides of the theater. Every surface the audience sees represents active confrontation. Guild Hall’s stained glass windows reflect evocative light onto pitch perfect period furniture and props (by Sven Nelson).
Michael Gottlieb (Lighting Design) and M. Florian Staab (Sound Design), create dangerous atmosphere from the minute we enter the theater. Sharp, loud noise evokes crowd violence, while smoke and high-beams personify confusion and fear. The exaggerated pop and glare of reporter’s flashbulbs and a resonant gavel sound punctuating court appearance are particularly unnerving.
Photos Carol Rosegg
2. Cara Seymour, Joseph Sikora
3. Cara Seymour, James Russell, Joseph Sikora
4. Joseph Sikora
The Freedom of the City by Brian Friel
Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly
The Irish Repertory Company
132 West 22nd Street
Through November 25, 2012