By Sebastian Barry; Directed by Jim Culleton
Produced by Fishamble
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 2.3.19
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
by Ran Xia on 1.13.19
David Ganly and Niall Buggy (back) in On Blueberry Hill. Photo by Patrick Redmond.
BOTTOM LINE: Sebastian Barry's two-hander is a beautifully nuanced yet thrilling tale about loss, grief, and forgiveness.
Fats Domino’s (version of) "Blueberry Hill" is about longing. It’s about loss and that glimpse of loveliness in the distance, in the bygone memories. It’s a cheerful tune, coming from that gut-wrenching place recognizable to anyone who’s lost someone. And from that swirl of music, memories, and complicated morality, Sebastian Barry's On Blueberry Hill threads two strands of stories, weaving them together into a tapestry of unforgiving fate. Fishamble’s production left me breathless with sympathy towards its protagonists in a highly unexpected way. Directed by Jim Culleton, Barry’s play will leave an imprint on your heart the way a stream shapes a stone: gradually, almost imperceptibly, but unmistakably a force to be reckoned with.
With elegant simplicity, On Blueberry Hill alternates its focus, with simple and straightforward lighting shifts (Mark Galione), on its two characters—PJ (David Ganly) and Christy (Niall Buggy)—as they take turns delivering their life stories in a succession of monologues. They share a bunk bed and wear the same grey, drab prison uniform, but it’s kept ambiguous whether they share the actual physical space. We meet PJ first, a fella with a rough sort of exterior; pretty quickly he reveals a tender and exceedingly vulnerable side. On the upper bunk is Christy, older than PJ but more alert, more quick-tempered, and more willing to let his passion take over. We learn about PJ’s rugby-playing past and his budding romance with a boy of “shining beauty.” It’s the 60s, when such love was taboo in Ireland. We wade through the river of time alongside Christy, and hear him recount in fondness his familial life.
Rather than a traditional two-hander, On Blueberry Hill is more two solo plays latticed on top of each other. I can’t say much more lest spoiling the entire piece, but we do eventually discover that the two inmates indeed share a space, both physically and emotionally, and they are connected with grief, guilt, and a hatred towards each other that morphs into something else. That it takes a while to learn the intricate connections between the two is perhaps the only shortcoming of the piece; such a winding lead-in risks losing our attention. However, I also celebrate that the play beckons us to focus, and that it does so by allowing the text to do the work. It’s powerful, almost magical to realize how much simple storytelling can evoke. And once the play captivates, there’s no escaping from its gentle grip.
On Blueberry Hill is an unflinchingly intimate piece. Ganly and Buggy, two extraordinary performers, deliver the poetic text with ease and gravitas in a tone that’s like “a man praying in private,” to borrow one of Barry's phrases. It’s also worth mentioning that Denis Clohessy’s sound design elevates the emotion without overpowering. The underscoring never gets overly melodramatic, but rather allows the space for each emotion to creep up on you.
On Blueberry Hill is a poetic play, yet one that is deeply grounded; it’s a play that captivates with patience, yet never lacks surprises. And it’s a quiet play, both in style and content. It’s about the lives of two ordinary folks who become intertwined by a whirligig of love and violence, both of which are depicted in a quiet and vulnerable way. And like all things true, it hits even harder when the violence is silent and almost committed with ease.
(On Blueberry Hill plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through February 3, 2019. The running time is 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:15, Saturdays at 2:15 & 7:15, and Sundays at 2:15. Tickets are $35 and are available at 59E59.org.)
On Blueberry Hill is by Sebastian Barry. Directed by Jim Culleton. Set and Costume Design by Sabine Dargent. Lighting Design by Mark Galione. Sound Design by Denis Clohessy. Stage Manager is Miriam Hyfler.
The cast is Niall Buggy and Gavid Ganly.