The Irish Rep’s production of Nate Rufus Edelman’s surprisingly warm play The Belle of Belfast opens with a loud recording of “Alternative Ulster,” a blistering punk rock screed and call to action about life in Northern Ireland by Belfast band The Stiff Little Fingers, accompanying a slide show chronicling the violence in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 80s. A seemingly limitless collection of photos of angry civilians, heavily armed military, and bloody casualties whizzes by as The Stiff Little Fingers cry protest and rebellion. Most wrenching are the photos juxtaposing everyday life with militarism: an elderly woman wheeling groceries home past a soldier with an automatic weapon, children walking to school past the rubble of a storefront bombing.
It is just this juxtaposition that makes Edelman’s play so compellingly human. Set in a violent and combustible 1985 Belfast, the play’s focus is not the military, the rebels, or their tension, but rather a small group of everyday people living among the chaos. If Brian Friel’s landmark Bloody Sunday play The Freedom of the City examines everyday people caught in the middle of the broil, The Belle of Belfast looks instead to the periphery, where daily lives want nothing more than to proceed with normality while unpredictable battles rage.
Edelman’s focus is a small community of Northern Irish Catholics existing under the oppressive rule of Protestant British colonialism. Tellingly, the play opens on a distinctively Catholic scene of confession, as an elderly Emma Malloy (Patricia Conolly) does her best to identify sins for which Father Ben Reilly (Hamish Allan-Headley) might absolve her (she feels she’s cursed more than she should, and she’s had a nip of Bushmills—Protestant whiskey!—and simply must repent). It is a tender and funny scene immediately set off against the images of violence from the play’s opening, capturing well Edelman’s humanizing approach to Northern Irish violence.
The play’s focus is Emma’s foul-mouthed niece, Anne Malloy (an impressive Kate Lydic), unencumbered by the constraints of religious morality and unapologetic for that fact. She and her high school friend Ciara Murphy (Arielle Hoffman) smoke, drink, talk about the boys Anne has shagged, and generally rue the squalor that is their Catholic existence in Northern Ireland.
Although the community—including her aunt Emma—has written Anne off as a lost cause, Father Ben makes it his mission to guide her towards a more structured and upstanding life. He is a young and devoted priest. While the elder Father Dermot (Billy Meleady) finds solace in Jameson and patriotic ideals about a free Ireland, Ben dedicates himself to the interpersonal work with his parishioners.
He is aided in this mission because Anne’s eagerness to talk to him is fueled by sexual desire. When the revelation of this illicit desire is coupled with the eruption of more violence, the play turns its attention most directly to how a community comprised of individuals with a variety of investments and hopes responds to and copes with trauma.
Under the sharp directorial eye of Claudia Weill, this ninety-minute production shows impressive efficiency in developing compelling characters with whose struggles we can empathize, regardless of how far we might be removed from Northern Irish violence. Anchored by the dynamic performances of Lydic and Allan-Headley, the production approaches violent political turmoil on the level of warm and insightful personal struggle.