“Why do you love me?”
What an awful, wrenching response to “I love you.” But in the world of Conor McPherson, such questions are very much the heart of the matter.
From his earliest monologue plays on through some of his biggest successes like The Weir, Shining City, and The Seafarer, McPherson has concerned himself again and again with men who are not simply wounded and depressed, but utterly broken by their efforts to understand a world of goodness in which they see little space for themselves, who they cannot help but loath.
This common concern of McPherson’s is at the core of his 2000 play, Dublin Carol, now receiving a raw and unvarnished staging at the Irish Rep under the direction of Ciarán O’Reilly. On the theater’s small stage with a perfectly drab set by Charlie Corcoran, McPherson’s penetrating portrait of a shattered man becomes vivid and unmitigated. O’Reilly restricts most of the action to a small, downstage table, giving these characters nowhere to hide and no excuse to avoid the challenging work of self-reflection that McPherson puts before them.
The tortured soul in question here is John (Jeffrey Bean), a recovering alcoholic who works for a funeral director as he tries to make a life for himself after destroying the family from whom he is now estranged. Two of the play’s three scenes find John at the funeral home chatting with twenty-something Mark (Cillian Hegarty). Their conversations are fairly inane, but as in all of McPherson’s work, what they have to say is far less important than what they reveal about themselves by saying it: it becomes clear that John is desperate for companionship and terrified of being alone, where the whiskey bottle is never out of arm’s reach. The play’s drama reaches its height in the middle scene, which features a visit to the funeral parlor from Mary (Sarah Street), John’s long-estranged daughter who has come to alert him that his wife is on her deathbed. Mary thinks John should visit; John cannot imagine why anybody would ever want to see him.
The play’s power must come from its pivotal second scene, and O’Reilly does fine work to cultivate restrained, bracing performances out of Bean and Street. Both evoke complex, layered histories and emotions to contextualize their awkward exchange. Mary has every right to despise her father, but Street’s considerable nuance makes clear that such a conclusion is not so easy for Mary, who is hounded by a love and understanding for John. Street paints Mary as neither completely bitter nor willing to forgive, but in fact terribly conflicted in her feelings.
Although Bean’s John is a broken and lonely man, he is working doggedly to reconstruct a sense of dignity and purpose. Bean does excellent work to capture this tension, making clear that any sense of goodness, charity, empathy or the like shown to John is baffling and painful. If he hates himself, how could anybody else possibly not feel the same? Bean is occasionally near tears, and has an angry outburst or two, but for the most part he shows John trying desperately to keep himself together, to find something in a world of other people that can help him understand where he fits in. In the play’s final few wordless minutes, Bean impressively evokes a lasting sense of John’s withering but determined efforts toward reconstructing his dignity.
Dublin Carol is in truth not McPherson’s best work: his signature garrulousness grows tiresome in the scenes between John and Mark, making for an uneven play. Still, the meeting between John and Mary is remarkable in its humanity, capturing all the playwright’s most powerful themes and concerns. At the Irish Rep, O’Reilly, Bean, and Street bring that scene to aching life, demanding a sense of empathy for these deeply conflicted characters.