BOTTOM LINE: A contemporary Dublin couple relates a harrowing story in alternating monologues. This is theatrical storytelling at its best. You won’t believe that 100 minutes could go by so fast and move you so deeply.
No one does despair like the Irish. Luckily, no one does humor quite like the Irish, either. From Samuel Beckett to Frank McCourt, the great Irish writers deftly express the dual nature of life, mingling tears and laughter almost in the same breath. And their famous “gift of gab” makes them superb storytellers. Sebastian Barry’s new play The Pride of Parnell Street is a compelling addition to the canon.
A man (Joe) lies on a bed as the audience take their seats. Lights come up on a woman (Janet) who begins speaking. Within moments we are spellbound. For this woman is telling us her story. And even if her accent is sometimes hard to understand and her vocabulary full of strange words (the program includes a glossary of Dublin slang) we listen as if our lives depend on it. Because hers seems to. The elements are familiar: poverty; drunkenness; the death of a child; sudden, shocking violence. Despair pervades everything, like the relentlessly falling rain outside the window in the back wall of the set. Yet we find ourselves laughing, listening to this litany of sorrow. We are laughing because, like these characters, we have to. We must laugh or die. Even optimistic, “anything-is-possible” Americans know what it is to dance on the edge of the abyss.
The simple, tragic story unfolds in alternating monologues told by Janet and Joe, a married couple who haven’t seen each other in 9 years. Physically and emotionally separate, each recounts the nightmarish events that tore them apart. Joe has been through drug abuse and prison. Now he lies in a charity hospital, wracked with guilt and regret. Janet is outwardly unscarred. But even she admits, “My heart has never mended neither. I’ve been going about with a broken heart, the whole time.”
Ultimately this play is several love stories. There is the love between Janet and Joe, tested beyond normal human endurance. There is their shared love of Dublin: “We didn’t have much of a life maybe but it was a Dublin life, and every Dublin life is a life worth living, let me tell you.” Finally there is the love of life itself, even when it’s been disfigured by pain and disappointment. In the face of death, Joe rails against the dying of the light: “It’s not like I don’t care, I do care about it. I can’t see how any living breathing person wouldn’t. Because I want to fucking live…I want to fucking live.”
The production is skillfully directed by Jim Culleton, Artistic Director of Dublin’s Fishamble Theatre Company. Except for a few visual flourishes (water figures prominently) he keeps the production simple and focused on the actors. And what actors they are. Mary Murray and Aidan Kelly inhabit their roles so completely that we don’t see acting at all. We see—and hear—life.
Thankfully, Barry finds an authentic way to temper the suffering of Janet and Joe with tenderness, grace and forgiveness. The Irish understand better than anyone that every loving act is a miracle. So is this show.
(The Pride of Parnell Street plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Madison & Park. The show plays through October 4: Tuesday at 7:15pm, Wednesday through Friday at 8:15pm, Saturday at 2:15pm and 8:15pm and Sunday at 3:15pm and 7:15pm.The show runs 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $35. For tickets call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or online at www.ticketcentral.com. For more information visit www.59E59.org.)