For centuries the Irish have been storytellers. Joyce, Shaw, Synge, Wilde, the list is as long as the island is old. And plays have been an integral part of that storytelling. Over the past 20 or 30 years, a new breed of Irish playwright has emerged and Irish theatre has enjoyed a true renaissance. The Philadelphia Theatre Initiative noticed that a number of area theatres would be offering works by these new playwrights this spring and felt a celebration was in order. Funding from PTI helped get the ball rolling and Culture Ireland, an Irish government agency, paid for a brochure to market all of these area stagings. Act II’s offering in the current Philadelphia Irish Theatre Festival is Sebastian Barry’s 2006 play THE PRIDE OF PARNELL STREET. Written while the playwright was a visiting professor at Villanova University, the piece is a pair of monologues wherein Joe and Janet Brady look back on the demise of their marriage with tremendous honesty and frankness. That single word “pride” takes on many connotations in this complex character study.
The play is set during the 1990s—a time when Dublin was going through an economic boom after many years of hard times. But for many of the scrappy residents in the poverty-ridden northern part of the city, life continued to be a daily struggle. Joe and Janet are two such souls. Poor Irish Catholics, they love each other and their city fiercely—the pride of Dubliners is well known. Janet gets pregnant at 16 and the two marry. Two more sons quickly follow the first, Billy. Joe supports his family by stealing from unlocked cars and other petty thievery. But Joe is madly in love with Janet and intensely proud to have her on his arm. They are truly in love, living their lives the best way they know how and raising their sons on the hardcore streets of the city—yet tragedy soon strikes. Their eldest is killed at the age of six when he grabs onto the back of a truck to hitch a ride. Joe and Janet’s cannot afford a proper burial, so the boy is placed in an unmarked grave in the acre set aside for poor children.
The family continues to scrape out an existence, held together by Joe and Janet’s intense love for each other. But one night everything falls apart; following Ireland’s defeat in the World Cup, Joe comes home and brutally beats Janet. She takes their two remaining sons and flees that night. The play is the couple looking back on that event and its aftermath ten years later. And how pride, shame—and, ultimately, redemption—sent Joe on a downward spiral.
Director Harriet Power, a faculty member at Villanova, befriended Barry during his time here and was among the first to read THE PRIDE OF PARNELL STREET. Clearly she connected with this material on a deep level, as have her actors. Ms. Power has elicited eloquently honest performances from both Kittson O’Neill as Janet and David Whalen as Joe. Whalen has the tougher job of the two in portraying a man who brutally abused his wife. Yet his willingness to go to the darkest places with this character allows the audience to understand him and forgive him in the end—as Janet does. Ms. O’Neill imbues her character with a brash strength, yet allows us to see the vulnerable girl underneath.
As usual, Act II’s designers have done an excellent job working within the intimate space of the theatre. Dirk Durosette’s split stage set gives us an alley with hints of the old houses of Parnell Street and Joe’s sterile generic hospital room. There’s even a miniature representation of the canal/river that runs through Dublin. All of this is beautifully complimented by James Leitner’s wonderful lighting design and Rob Kaplowitz’s amazing soundscape. And the dialect work of Lynne Innerst was spot-on, authentically Dublin yet understandable to American ears. As someone of Irish decent, I hate when people don’t get the brogue right. No disappointment here. Costuming by Charlotte Chloe Fox Wind and properties by Avista Custom Theatrical Services solidly completed the design team.
This is not an easy hour and a half at the theatre. Written in the street vernacular of lower class Dubliners, the language is frank. Yet, there are moments of poetry as Joe and Janet examine their life and love. It is well worth the drive to Ambler to see this window into the world of people we would probably otherwise ignore.
THE PRIDE OF PARNELL STREET
by Sebastian Barry
Directed by Harriet Power
March 22 – April 17, 2011
Act II Playhouse
56 E. Butler Avenue
Ambler, PA 19002