Among the many characteristics that make The Irish Rep a wonderful theatrical resource is its status as an unofficial American home of Brian Friel’s work. Productions of the great Derry playwright’s plays pepper the Chelsea theater’s history, highlighted most recently by wonderful productions of The Freedom of the City and Dancing at Lughnasa. Friel’s lyricism and wry, unromantic social commentary returns for the first time to the newly renovated Irish Rep with The Home Place, the 2005 play about rising impatience and festering anger with British colonialism in rural Ireland.
Directed with keen insight by Charlotte Moore, the show balances delicately on a threshold between idyll and revolutionary violence as opposing English and Irish interests vie to define Ireland on their own terms.
Christopher Gore (John Windsor-Cunningham) is a wealthy Englishman from Kent who owns an expansive plot of land in rural County Donegal, Ireland, that contains his own estate and the far more meager homes of his Irish peasant tenants. The year is 1878, and throughout the country Irish nationalists are increasing their push for Home Rule, an institution of self-government within the British empire. As the play opens, Christopher and his son David (Ed Malone) are returning from the funeral of another British landlord who has recently been brutally murdered in what Christopher fears is only the beginning of violence against his kind. His Irish housekeeper, Maggie (Rachel Pickup), tries to sooth his concerns, but even she is wary of the presence of her cousin Con Doherty (Johnny Hopkins) and some of his associates around the Gore home. Tensions are only exasperated by the presence of Dr. Richard Gore (Christopher Randolph), Christopher’s cousin, a triumphalist and racist anthropologist eager to test Irish specimens like so much cattle in the hopes of understanding the minds of folks he considers simpletons.
Moore’s production works best by dwelling comfortably in the tension that never comes to a head. Friel was far more interested in murky complexity than grand conflict and resolution, and so The Home Place spends more time laying out the stakes of Home Rule than offering any solutions. Moore and her cast do well not to try to impose closure. Windsor-Cunningham’s Gore seems exasperated, but not villainous (Randolph’s anthropologist, however, strikes just the right tone as a perfectly pompous wretch), and Pickup’s Maggie, who finds herself an Irish woman growing increasingly close to her English employers, toes a fine, nuanced line between loyalty to her home and care for the Gore men.
Still, Hopkins’s Doherty makes very clear between the lines of his objections to the quack research of Dr. Gore that violence is only too close of an option. Hopkins does estimable work to capture Doherty’s gradually waning restraint (the same can be said of Gordon Tashjian as Johnny McLoone, Doherty’s taciturn but serious companion). Friel keeps violence offstage, but Hopkins’ performance makes very clear that the threat is quite real.
Ultimately, The Home Place exemplifies many of Friel’s strengths, but it is not the playwright at his best. The plot drags; exposition is occasionally clunky and at times insufficient; and imagery is constructed with a heavy hand. Moore and her skilled cast nonetheless bring the most out of this script, offering a welcome opportunity to see one of the playwright’s lesser-performed works. It may lack the grace of Friel’s more famous plays, but in the expert hands of the Irish Rep, The Home Place nonetheless intrigues as notions of revolution and empire simmer towards boiling.
The Home Place runs through December 17, 2017. More production info can be found here.