Thursday, August 22, 2013

Quietly: A Conjuring of the Past

"Kids can do more damage than you think."

A confrontation driven by silence. A confession that holds few surprises yet I could barely breathe as the scene unfolded. 

The Abbey Theatre's production of Owen McCafferty's play about two men in a bar in Belfast has none of the usual trappings of Irish theatre set in a bar. There is no banter, joviality, or mucking about. Two men, with an agenda, are here to speak to each other and listen to each other.  Such a simple act is nothing of the kind when one is a Protestant and one a Catholic and this is Northern Ireland.  And that conversation/confrontation becomes the basis for the explosive drama of this play.

Recent Polish immigrant and barman Robert (Robert Zawadzki) is watching the Northern Ireland v. Poland match on TV. His one customer, Jimmy (Patrick O'Kane), comes in and warns him that a man, Ian (Declan Conlon), is coming and there will be a bit of trouble. What kind and over what we don't know. But the two men have a history and we will learn their history parallels Belfast's history. 

Jimmy sets the tone and course of action. He demands that Ian speak.  Ian tells his story.  But we already know how the story will end, even so, the intensity of the story gives a release to Jimmy and the audience to hear it spoken aloud. The anticipation and tension are palpable. I did not even want to shift in my seat for fear of setting off the tinderbox of the situation.

I reveled in McCafferty's writing skill. With a sure hand, the writing managed to steer clear of sentimentality, yet had me openly weeping.   The rituals of rembrance are presented simply and quietly.  It surprised me with its clarity of vision when it is a tricky subject to negotiate. Much of the political theater I saw at Edinburgh Fringe struggled to commit to its subject.  Here, I felt no hesitation.  

McCafferty's play also foregrounds the power of words.  Jimmy says, "There's more to the truth than facts."  Putting the "truth" into words and speaking them into the world changes us.   The past becomes present in the room.  Like a conjuring, Ian has taken an amorphous conflict and turned it into flesh. It becomes Jimmy and his life.  Yet it is Ian and his life too.  It is not just the day that changed their lives when they were 16. It's the intervening 30 years as well.  Through terrific performances and strong writing the men standing before us become children in front of our eyes.  McCafferty's script shows us the fork in the road of their lives--the moment of confronting it and the path they have been on ever since. We feel their regret, the weight of their deep and painful reflections, and we see them as they were, as they are, and as they could never be again.  

Pure magic and it was one of the most transformative moments of the 2013 Fringe festival for me.

And the cast makes this all seem effortless.  O'Kane is wiry and raw.  He finds gradations in his anger and brings pain and loss to life.  Conlon's understated Ian provides the right balance of strength and sadness.  

One of the strongest pieces I saw at the Fringe and one I hope tours to New York.  

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