“In the beginning was the word. And the IRISH got it.”
Honoring the one year anniversary of playwright, Frank McCourt’s passing, The Irish Repertory Company has revived the piece whose 1997 world premiere they also mounted.
More an entertainment than a play, this affectionate version of the Irish national character and its contribution to American history, takes us on a thoughtful and rollicking ride from the great potato famine to Bono. In the mix are familiar Toora Loora Loora-type songs, sentimental classics, and George M. Cohan…Yeats, Shaw, Wilde, and Jimmy Breslin…quips, aphorisms, quotes, comic disparagement of the English “The English conquered the world to escape their own cooking” and of the Irish “There were two types of people the Irish did not get along with, the Blacks and the Whites,” fiddling, jigging, tapping, truth (you’ll have to find it,) and notable charm.
Did you know the Irish discovered America? St. Brendan, Bishop of Clonfert, set sail in 545 A.D. and landed on the shores of Virginia. After seven years of preaching, he returned to Ireland, founded monasteries, raised reinforcements, and set sail again for the new world. He was never heard from again. Uh huh. It is a vulgar error to suppose that America WAS discovered. It was merely…detected. Oscar Wilde.
Were you aware that Sir Walter Raleigh brought the first potato to Ireland…having offered it to her majesty who found it ugly and wanting, despite being told it might be an aphrodisiac? “Take it to the Irish, she commanded, they’ll like it.” So the unassuming tuber was planted in rich Irish soil. Uh huh. “Did it take kindly? It did.” The rest, as they say, is history. Famine under English rule, followed by persecution on our shores for those who made it out alive: IRISH NEED NOT APPLY.
The Irish story of acclimatization and acceptance is interesting and daunting. (Accompanying projections of art and photographs present a rough reality). It’s also been beautifully written about as have the brooding, hot tempered, tough, tender and fanciful Irish. “A learned American scholar asked an old Irishwoman if she believed in Fairies. I do NOT! But they’re there.”
Apparently, Irish men and women have been first in endless circumstances: the first witch hanged in New England, the first doctor to remove an appendix, the maker of the first American piano and inventors of the steamboat and submarine, instigators of the first labor strikes and draft riots, the first man to leap from The Brooklyn Bridge, and the first Catholic in The White House. Think of the writers, actors, and musicians!
In the end, this is a people who have a pretty damn good sense of humor about themselves: “This is a dark, dark world…that’s why the Irish are always half lit” Adlai Stevenson; a sense of humor they’ve sorely needed: “Sigmund Freud said only to the Irish was psychoanalysis useless.” And, like George M. Cohan, are passionate Yankee Doodle Dandies.
McCourt’s scholarly and imaginative patchwork presents a thoroughly enjoyable evening-lively, fun, moving, and elucidating. The ensemble is congenial and talented, the production artful. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Francis “Frank” McCourt (left) playwright, author and New York public school teacher (30 years) was born in Brooklyn (he died in 2009), but returned with his family to Limerick, Ireland in 1934 after the death of a newborn sister. His father drank what money he had leaving McCourt’s mother to raise four children, often by begging. It was a life of hardscrabble poverty. Ending his public school education at thirteen, McCourt held odd jobs, stealing bread and milk to feed his family. His several memoirs recounting these harrowing days with poignancy and unexpected humor include the Pulitzer Prize winning Angela’s Ashes. Returning to New York at nineteen, he was drafted into the Korean War, continued his education, taught, and wrote.
Charlotte Moore’s direction is comfortable, fluid and visually pleasing. Her players are expressive without falling into the trap of ham. She utilizes the unique talents of each to good advantage. The ensemble feels cohesive and comradely, an asset to this kind of revue-like production. Moore is additionally the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of The Irish Repertory Company.
Kerry Conte is a delight. She has a stage brightness and clarity which make her extremely appealing, sings like a nightingale, and communicates as if wearing her heart on her sleeve. Her performance was polished and spirited.
Terry Donnelly, recreating the role she played in the premiere, is manifestly a character actress. Her short dramatizations were affecting and bore a personal signature. Donnelly has a mischief about her that serves here as well. Singing is, alas, not her strong suit.
Ciaran Sheehan, recreating the role he played in the premiere , has the appearance of an operatic heart throb. Feet planted firmly on the ground, his full- throated tenor voice fills the theater with gravitas. It’s a mothers-hold-onto-your-daughters voice…strong, refined, embracing every lyric with meaning. And he tap dances!
Gary Troy could probably play the role of George M.Cohan. (He does a turn as Cohan pere here) His brogue is as good as his jig. Troy has a fine voice whether mining his roots or (losing the accent) holding his own with a Bono lyric. He’s a spark plug of energy and so focused he vibrates even still. This is a real thespian.
Patrick Shields, resident minstrel, plays able violin, mandolin and bodhran, integrating himself nicely into the staging. Kevin B. Winebold, Musical Director and Pianist, serves each song and every voice in a naturalistic and ingratiating fashion.
Shawn Lewis’ nineteenth century-looking set was evocative of the immigrating Irish and their music. His use of taut lines of vertical rope as screens onto which well chosen projections illustrated history, was clever and appropriate. Barry McNabb’s choreography was a robust welcome addition.
Production Photos,by Carol Rosegg, from top, left to right:
1-Patrick Shields, Gary Troy, Kerry Conte, Terry Donnelly, Ciaran Sheehan, Kevin B. Winebold
2-Gary Troy, Kerry Conte, Terry Donnelly, Ciaran Sheehan
3- Gary Troy, Ciaran Sheehan
4- Frank McCourt
5-Kerry Conte, Ciaran Sheehan
The Irish…And How They Got That Way by Frank McCourt
Directed by Charlotte Moore
The Irish Repertory Theater
132 West 22 Street between 6th & 7th
212-727-2737 or www.irishrep.org
Through September 5