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A CurtainUp Review
The Home Place

. . .I believed I could do things differently. I would be the good landlord as well as being a good neighbor and friend-in-need when the need arose. Fell flat on my face, didn't I? — Christopher

John Windsor Cunningham and Rachel Pickup (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
You don't have to get on a plane to enjoy the works of Ireland's best playwrights. Even before the now completed spiffy renovation of the Chelsea address where all things Irish have thrived for twenty-nine years, the Irish Repertory Theatre mounted some of Brian Friel's best Plays: Philadelphia Here I Come in 2005, Aristocrats in 2009, Dancing at Lughanasa in 2011 and Freedom of the City in 2012. Now, for the first Friel play in their renovated home, they've mounted his last full-length play, The Home Place.

In true to Friel fashion The Home Place explores issues of identity, race and nationhood in nineteenth-century Ireland. The portrait of a specific familial situation is firmly placed within a broad historical arc that illuminates the Anglo-Irish relationship or as Friel puts it "the doomed nexus of those who believe they're the possessors and those who believe they're dispossessed."

AS the American playwright Horton Foote proved himself to be a keen observer of the human condition within the context of a well-known to him place (his Texas home town), Friel set many of his best plays in the fictional village of Ballybeg in County Donegal. His final visit to Ballibeg takes place during the summer of 1878, when the land war is looming and the ascendancy of the resident English gentry is crumbling. While similar to previous plays in its setting and stylistic Chekhovian echoes, this is the playwright's first exploration of the Protestant experience.

Wealthy but kind and liberal-minded widowed English landowner Christopher Gore (John Windsor Cunningham) has tried to live with his "history and heritage and the awful burden." Unlike a recently murdered brutal English neighbor, he and his son David (Ed Malone) treat their servants fairly. In fact, both men are in love with and want to marry their lovely housekeeper Margaret (Rachel Pickup).

Though Gore despised the murdered man's brutalities, his continuued solidarity with his fellow landowners and respect for the man's wife required him to attend his funeral. To heighten the tension surrounding these British owned estates, Christopher's cousin and childhood playmate Doctor Richard Gore (Christopher Randolph, the snobbish Colonial Brit personified) has arrived for a visit. An ethnologist, Cousin Richard and Perkins, his creepy assistant (Stephen Pilkington doing creepy very well indeed), have brought their new fangled anthropometrical instruments to conduct tests on the local peasantry. Doctor Richard's aim: to prove his offensive assumptions about the genetic superiority of the upper classes.

As Christopher failed to condemn his nasty neighbor either before or after his death, so he fails to see his cousin's obnoxious experiments as more than harmless silliness. In short, what we have is a play with themes of conflicting loyalties centered on Christopher — a flawed man too timid to take a stand against those who abuse their privileges of birth, class and wealth. . .a man who can't shake off the inherent prejudices of his hybrid Anglo-Irish heritage and thus falls victim to them.

The Chekhovian influence on Friel's work is here rather heavy-handed; for example, Christopher's setting his son to work on the symbolic removal of dead trees on the estate. And the first act's introduction of the characters who are the agents as well as victims of unstoppable change moves at a rather talk-heavy, meandering pace.

However, Charlotte Moore has assembled a fine cast to make all the characters creditable and aptly sympathetic or despicable —the former for Gore father and son, Margaret and Andrea Lynn Green's sassy servant Sally. . . the latter for Christopher Randolph's rude and narrow-minded Dr. Gore and Stephen Pilkington's creepy Pilkerton, who becomes even more so when he abandons his taciturnity.
This is also a beautiful production. That's thanks to James Noone's set with its glimpses of the forests outside the Gore mansion's interior, David Toser's costumes and Michael Gottlieb's lighting.

Christian Gore is not only the play's key character but the star performance as sympathetically portrayed John William Cunningham. That's not to say that the performances overall aren't excellent. As already noted Christopher Randolph and Stephen Pilkington are fine as the mean-spirited visitors.

Ed Malone does his best with the somewhat underdeveloped character of David Gore. Rachel Pickup captures the nuances of the lovely Margaret's conflicted feelings, not just towards the younger and older Gore but her loyalties to the local Irish people with whom she grew up. Andrea Lynn Green is delightful as the cheeky servant who's in love with Con Doherty (Johnny Hopkins), one of the local men ready to wage revolution against the British landowners.

The play 's most dramatic scene sees the patronizing Doctor Gore and his assistant carry out their experiments. The silly and insulting head and body measurement tactics bring on several local Irish peasants (notably Polly McKie as an impoverished widow named Mary Sweeney who volunteered in hopes of earning some money and not just getting a photograph). The "volunteer" project also incites the more militant villagers to confront Christian Gore with a demand to send his cousin away.

The play's agenda of depicting the collapse of the British aristocracy on Irish soil, ends with Gore trapped between his innate allegiance to his class and his sympathies for the angry townspeople — shades of what's going to happen to the place he's so long and lovingly called home.

The Home Place written when its author was 76 is great Friel. But Charlotte Moore and her team make it plain that there's enough here to mdkd this a worthwhile final visit to Ballybeg.
For more about Brian Friel and links to his plays reviewed at the Irish Rep and elsewhere, check out our Friel Backgrounder.

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The Home Place by Brian Friel
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Cast: Logan Riley Bruner as Tommy Boyle, Andrea Lynn Green as Sally Cavanagh, Johnny Hopkins as Con Doherty, Robert Langdon Lloyd as Clement O'Donnell, Ed Malone as David Gore, Polly McKie as Mary Sweeney, Rachel Pickup as Margaret O'Donnell, Stephen Pilkington as Perkins, Christopher Randolph as Dr. Richard Gore, Gordon Tashjian as Johnny MacLoone, John Windsor-Cunningham as Christopher Gore.
Set design by James Noone
Costume design by David Toser
Lighting design by Michael Gottlieb
/sound design and original music by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab
Oroperties by Sven Henry Nelson
Dialects by Stephen Gabis
Stage Manager: Pamela Brusoski
Running Time: Approx. 1 hour and 50 minutes including 1 intermission
Irish Rep Theatre 132 West 22nd Street
The Irish Repertory Theater on West 22nd Street
. From 9/27/17; opening 10/08/17; closing 12/17/17.
Wednesdays at 3pm and 8pm; Thursdays at 7pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm; and Sundays at 3pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 5th press preview

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