Aristocrats – Beneath the Facade…

Dysfunctional families have always been prime fodder for fiction. The dissolution of playwright Brian Friel’s aristocratic household, like those in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, is symptomatic of a particular era. Landed  gentry, the once powerful O’Donnells, have for some time struggled with cultural and economic change. Patriarch Justice O’Donnell (Colin Lane), a widower, is mentally and physically out of commission and housebound. The family has no income. Ballybeg Hall keeps up a good local front, but is in grave disrepair.

Chicagoan Tom Huffnung (Roger Dominic Casey, doing his best in a role that’s more of a device) is in temporary residence at the Hall, researching what sounds like a book on the downfall of the Irish Roman Catholic privileged class. Outside questions expose fabulously imaginative lies. None of the emotionally handicapped O’Donnells have ever worked. All suffer from the legacy of their bullying father and depression.

Meg Hennessy (Claire), Tim Ruddy (Eamon)

Raucous complaints, physical resistance, and court declamations can be heard over a baby monitor installed by family friend Willie Diver (Shane McNaughton). The Justice no longer recognizes his selfless caregiver, daughter Judith (Danielle Ryan). Steadfast Willie knows better than to pursue his suit of her as long as the old man’s alive. McNaughton is a warm attentive presence. Ryan comes into her affecting own in Act II when Judith’s façade crumbles.

Between tirades, Chopin piano compositions waft from a music room where youngest daughter Claire (Meg Hennessy) almost constantly plays. Also present in the manse is dapper Uncle George (Colin Lane), who intermittently appears, gazes, then retreats like the silent ghost of a glorified past. Lane’s Bill Nighy-like rigidity and apparent aphasia is a kind of comic relief.

Tim Ruddy (Eamon), Colin Lane (Uncle George), Meg Hennessy (Claire), Roger Dominic Casey (Tom)

The family has gathered for Claire’s wedding to “a middle aged widower with four young children.” She’s marrying, most probably, for reasons of security. As gracefully inhabited by Hennessy, the young woman is extremely fragile and anxious. Only playing piano or retreating into fantasy (an invisible croquet game) offer respite.

Claire’s brother Casimir (Tom Holcomb) is even more vulnerable. He lives in barely withheld terror, periodically collapsing like a popped balloon. Casimir has flown in from Hungary where he lives with breadwinner Helga (she’s a cashier in a bowling alley) and two children who barely speak English. Holcomb manifests a wonderfully whole character with not a gesture or tone out of place. The actor captivates in what-will-he-do-next fashion. Closest in age, temperament, and affliction, Claire and Casimir meet in music and depend on one another when in proximity.

Meg Hennessy (Claire), Sarah Street (Alice)

Fourth sibling Alice (Sarah Street) is visiting from London with her Irish husband Eamon (Tim Ruddy). Alice married “beneath” herself, a condition more relevant to Eamon, the son of a former maid in the Hall. They both drink; she’s an acknowledged alcoholic. An already volatile relationship is more flammable under current circumstances. The couple live in a basement apartment abhorrent to them both.

Sarah Street is a thoroughly believable, nuanced drunk. Her portrayal of Alice combines Eyore’s omnipresent pessimism and well honed bitterness. You could cut the latter with a knife. There’s something splendid about her. Eamon is more than his upbringing might imply. Tim Ruddy’s  characterization is smart, watchful and at root, jealous. Chemistry between the two is superb.

When the event for which they’ve gathered is suddenly replaced by another, truths must be faced and dealt with. One can practically hear the screech of brakes as each person has to radically adjust expectations.

Shane McNaughton (Willie), Danielle Ryan (Judith)

Director Charlotte Moore has excelled. Players move in distinctive emotional and physical character, instabilities uniquely rendered. Entrances and exits are never gratuitous. Composition – frequent placement of so many people – is both realistic and aesthetic. Pacing is as organic as breathing. We feel we’re watching things unspool in real time.

Charlie Corcoran’s set creatively allows for several outdoor situations while providing a glimpse of the book lined, old wood Hall which grounds proceedings. Costumes (David Toser) fit as if characters had chosen them. Sound and original music (Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab) are evocative and discreet.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Opening: Alice (Sarah Street), Tom (Roger Dominic Casey), Casimir (Tom Holcomb)

Aristocrats by Brian Friel
Directed by Charlotte Moore

Second in Irish Repertory Theatre’s series, The Friel Project comprised of three works set in the rural town of Ballybeg, Ireland. Preceding this was Translations; following it will be 1964’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Through March 3, 2024

About Alix Cohen (1751 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.