Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Home Place - Not Always Where The Heart Is

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The breakdown of the status quo can be tough on those who've lived by it for so long. An issue Brian Friel examines in his 2005 drama The Home Place. The work having its North American premiere at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

In 1878, Christopher Gore (John Windsor-Cunningham) is an aging and increasingly forgetful British landowner in Ballybeg, Ireland. He is also landlord to the various tenants who live and work on his property. The continuation of a family practice going back several generations.

A long-time widower, Christopher depends greatly on the services of his housekeeper Margaret O'Donnell (Rachel Pickup), an Irish woman who came to The Lodge, as the Gore home is called, when she was a child. She now having more in common with Christopher, who would marry her in an instant, than she does with any of the “common” folk in the area. Including their live-in maid Sally Cavanagh (Andrea Lynn Green).

This is not the best of times for the landed gentry. One of their number having recently been murdered, amid rumors of a growing unrest among the Irish people. Much of this personified in Sally's boyfriend Con Doherty (Johnny Hopkins) who, along with the with more ominous Johnny McLoone (Gordon Tashjian), has recently returned from Dublin.

Making an already tense situation worse is Dr. Richard Gore (Christopher Randolph), Christopher's cousin from Kent in England. Both Christopher and Richard referring to Kent as “The Home Place”. An anthropologist, Richard believes that by examining the skulls and other characteristics of people of different classes, one can use this information to uncover such things as their propensity for violence, ambition, loyalty, sacrifice, etc. Richard and his assistant Perkins (Stephen Pilkington) intent on examining some of the Ballybeg locals in this regard. Though when certain people object to Richard's methods, Christopher finds himself in the middle of a conflict with massive ramifications, no matter which side he supports.

Focusing on issues of class status, human dignity and cultural identity, Friel has crafted an absorbing tale. From Richard's condescending attitude towards anyone not of his station in life - he continually refers to the volunteers for his examinations as "specimens" - to Con and his companions' belief that the land Christopher and people like him control actually belong to the people of Ireland; one can see examples of long-entrenched ways of thinking, and where compromise is not an option. Also telling is the belittling way Margaret continually addresses the less-cultured Sally, as well as her being ashamed of her own father (Robert Langdon Lloyd), the local choirmaster and a perennial drunkard. His presence being a painful reminder of a past Margaret is trying desperately to forget.

Unfortunately the story is hampered by a very talky text, which often slows the action down to a crawl. The only way to overcome a situation like this is to make the various characters interesting enough so the audience will want to follow along. Something that is not the case here. The entire first act, which lays the groundwork for what is to follow, feels like a gigantic passive experience, where information is provided and positions are staked out, but none of which is in any way engaging.

At least part of the problem can be found in Charlotte Moore's direction, which is unable to make the show resonate as strongly as it should. An example of this being her mention in the show program of how she found the Doherty character both "mesmerizing and terrifying". However, Hopkins' portrayal of Con, while at times threatening, falls well short of how Moore describes him. His presence in the play seeming more like an afterthought, rather than a pivotal figure.

The real shame is that the play contains a lot of material on which to build, with much of the opportunities to do so simply fizzling out. The character of Margaret being a particular case in point. O'Donnell playing a character caught in a love triangle with Christopher and his son David (Ed Malone), as well as facing her own personal identity crisis. Though she displays some strong moments of passion, such as when she shows her disappointment at Christopher or comes face to face with her father, her overall performance is not strong enough to make the audience care about this particular individual, or her ultimate fate.

Windsor-Cunningham on the other hand, delivers a standout turn of a man raging against an oncoming storm which he is powerless to prevent. Like Margaret, he is a person with a foot in two different worlds, yet not fully welcome in either. Originally seeming to be losing his grip on reality he is, in actuality, someone completely beaten down by a life that never turned out the way he wanted.

Randolph is good as the single-minded Richard. Someone who firmly believes in his research, while totally oblivious to how it may been seen by others. Green and Pilkington help add a bit of humor to the proceedings; Green also giving a strong earthy quality to her character. Malone's portrayal of David however comes off as more irritating than anything else. He presenting the image of a man immature beyond his years, with no backstory to the character. The relationship between David and his father is also not nearly developed as it needs to be.

James Noone's set of The Lodge offers a nice touch of opulence, while providing a strong juxtaposition between those who have wealth and those who live in poverty - as indicated by several people who arrive to participate in Richard's study. Michael Gottlieb's lighting nicely complements the atmosphere of the different scenes and tensions of the story.

The Home Place has the potential to be a very interesting and thought-provoking piece of theatre. Sadly with this production, it's just not presented that well.

Featuring: Rachel Pickup (Margaret O'Donnell), Andrea Lynn Green (Sally Cavanagh),
Gordon Tashjian (Johnny McLoone), Johnny Hopkins (Con Doherty), Ed Malone (David Gore), John Windsor-Cunningham (Christopher Gore), Christopher Randolph (Dr. Richard Gore), Stephen Pilkington (Perkins), Robert Langdon Lloyd (Clement O'Donnell), Polly McKie (Mary Sweeney), Logan Riley Bruner (Tommy Boyle)

The Home Place
by Brian Friel

Set Design: James Noone
Costume Design: David Toser
Lighting Design: Michael Gottlieb
Original Music: Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab
Properties: Sven Henry Nelson
Dialects: Stephen Gabis
Casting: Deborah Brown
Production Stage Manager: Pamela Brusoski
Assistant Stage Manager: Rebecca C. Monroe
Press Representative: Matt Ross Public Relations
General Manager: Lisa Fane

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, one intermission

Closes: December 17, 2017

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