Thursday, November 15, 2012

“The Freedom of the City” - "Packing a Political Wallop"

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Playwright Bran Friel offers a resounding indictment against oppression, misinterpretations by the media and the excessive use of force by those in power with his 1973 work The Freedom of the City. The play is based on an actual 1972 incident where 13 protesters were shot by the British Parachute Regiment in the town of Derry in British-occupied Northern Ireland.

Using that real-life situation as a template, Friel sets his story in the same location, and two years earlier, where three very different people, all strangers to one another, are taking part in a civil rights demonstration. When British authorities break up the gathering with water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas, such demonstrations being illegal, the three take shelter in the first open building they can find, which happens to be the Guildhall, where the Mayor of the town holds court.

As the trio begins to take stock of their situation, each reacts differently. Lily (Cara Seymour), a mother of eleven and who sees these demonstrations as an excuse for her to get out of the house, is fascinated by her surroundings and treats the entire experience with a sort of awe and wonderment. Skinner, (Joseph Sikora) the most vocal of the three, sees their being at the Guildhall as a tremendous joke, and through his tendency of "defense flippancy", as he calls it, a chance to get in some quick satisfaction now that the location is in the hands of the people, so to speak. Meanwhile Michael (James Russell), who's more cautious than the others and who firmly believes in civil rights, as long as there's no violence involved, wants to leave as it's safe to do so, with everything being left exactly the way they found it.

It may be too late for any of them to leave, however, as the police are preparing to surround the Guildhall, believing it to be filled with armed terrorists. All the while the media, unable to get specific information on just who is inside or what their intentions are, report a series of half-truths and possibilities, turning those in the Guildhall into local folk heroes. With the masses rooting for the unknown protesters and the British authorities desperate to regain control of the situation, a potentially dangerous scenario quickly goes from bad to worse.

Friel pulls no punches here, going for the jugular in accusing those in charge of totally mishandling things due to ignorance, fear and the need not to look stupid in the eyes of both their supporters and their detractors. Increasing the emotional impact is the fact that the story takes place in two separate time periods, continually switching back and forth between each. The first follows Lily, Michael and Skinner at the Guildhall and the subsequent involvement of the police and media; while the second takes place sometime later as a court of inquiry tries to unravel who is ultimately responsible for what occurred on that fateful day. As such, it's interesting to see the theories presented and conclusions drawn regarding what was going on, as compared to seeing what actually happened.

The only time a lack of believability creeps in is with the reaction of the three inside the Guildhall when they realize the gravity of their situation. The first act ends with the police ordering them to come out with their hands in the air. Yet in act two, while Michael wants to leave immediately, Skinner and Lily continually talk about one thing or another, with Skinner also beginning to trash the place. Yet Skinner's actions and Lily's attitude don't really jibe with the characters as they have been presented. There are some strong points made between the three during these exchanges, but it would have worked much better had the police announcement come later in the play, as having them holding a mock meeting on various mayoral issues of the day after they're been given a warning to come out stretches the credibility of the scene somewhat.

Seymour does a good job in making Lily more than a stereotypical wife and mother. At first glance a woman slowly being suffocated in a life she nonetheless loves, Lily eventually admits, with some urging from Skinner, that she's more involved in the civil rights demonstrations than she first thought, seeing in them not only a temporary escape from her endless housewife duties, but also the possibility of a better life for her children. Still, regardless of how she feels inside, she is first and foremost a mother; as shown in a cute moment when she orders a quickly chastised Skinner to get out of his wet clothes before he catches cold.

Russell effectively makes Michael both a study in denial and the most unsympathetic person of the trio. A man who believes in peaceful protests, as well always trying to see the best in people, Michael worries more about the cause he supports than what's happening to the people said cause is supposed to benefit. He also steadfastly refuses to believe that the police would harm them indiscriminately, making him somewhat naive considering what has gone on up to that point. Michael's attitudes are also in marked contrast to the unfolding events, the audience already knowing what is about to happen, though not in the manner that it does.

Sikora is good as Skinner, an angry malcontent with a fatalistic attitude, and a man determined to leave him mark, even if it's only by signing the Guildhall guestbook, before he's done. His devil-may-care attitude, coupled with a smoldering aura of violence and a past he won't discuss, leads to several confrontations between him and Michael, with Lily more often than not coming down on Skinner's side of things.

Elsewhere, John C. Vennema is nicely officious as the Judge who presides over the official inquiry by the authorities, while Craig Wroe is good as Brigadier Johnson-Hansbury, the man in charge of the various companies which surrounded the Guildhall, and who ultimately may have been responsible for the final outcome.

Ciarán O'Reilly's direction works well, building the tension nicely, though much of the extraneous material in act two slows things down a bit. However he does a good job in helping the actors to bring out the human side of their characters, showing them all to be flesh and blood figures rather than simply symbols of a cause or a particular moment in history.

Charlie Corcoran's set is nicely furnished without being over the top. Costumes by David Toser range from the functional to the officious. Sound design by Ryan Rumery is excellent throughout, particularly hitting home in the last moments of the play when it helps to paint a devastating final image just before the blackout.

The Freedom of the City looks at an event which should never be forgotten, and while some aspects of the play have become a bit dated, the work's underlying messages of misuse of authority, wrongful oppression, the rights of the individual and the need for the truth to ultimately come out, still strongly ring forth.

The Freedom of the City

Featuring: James Russell (Michael), Cara Seymour (Lily), Joseph Sikora (Skinner), Christa Scott-Reed (Photographer/Dr. Dobbs/Eileen O'Kelly), Ciaran Byrne (Priest/Soldier C), John C. Vennema (Judge), Clark Carmichael (Constable B/Soldier D/Balladeer/Reporter/Dr. Winbourne), Craig Wroe (Solider A/Reporter/Brigadier Johnson-Hansbury), Evan Zes (Soldier B/Army Press Officer/Processor Cupley)

Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Ciarán O'Reilly
Set Design: Charlie Corcoran
Costume Design: David Toser
Lighting Design: Michael Gottlieb
Original Music: Ryan Rumery
Sound Design: M. Florian Staab
Props: Sven Nelson
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Casting: Deborah Brown
Hair and Wig Design: Robert-Charles Vallance
Production Stage Manager: Pamela Brusoski
Assistant Stage Manager: Rebecca C. Monroe
Press Representative: Shirley Herz Associates

Presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage
Address: 212-132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Closes: November 25, 2012

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