Saying goodbye to the youth of Ireland in the lyrical, hopeful, entertaining Many Young Men of Twenty

Foreground: James Phelan, Tina McCulloch, Emmet Leahy and William Laxamana. Background: Martin McGuane. Set design by Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy. Costume design by Bernadette Hunt. Lighting design by Karlos Griffith. Photo by Gregory Breen.

 

The Toronto Irish Players take us to a time of desperate hope and dreams, leaving and staying behind, with its lyrical, hopeful and entertaining production of John B. Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty, directed by Gregory Breen and Tim O’Connell, with musical direction by Donna O’Regan and Dan Schaumann—and running at Alumnae Theatre, where it played to a packed house last night.

It’s Southern Ireland in 1961, as we enter a village pub that serves as a microcosm for the comings and goings of local residents—and a point of departure and return for the wave of young people being sent off to England to find work in order to help support their struggling families back home. Opening with vocalists Gemma Healey-Murphy and Orlaith Ní Chaoinleáin, accompanied by Dan Schaumann on acoustic guitar, then performing a cappella, we’re transported to a time and place with evocative music, sung in both English and Irish.

The intimidating Seelie (Donna O’Regan, in an imperious, dominating turn as the boss) owns and runs the pub with her whiskey-loving brother Tom (Martin McGuane, in a complex combination of childish obstinance and adult frustration). Peg (a wistful, but fierce performance from Aoibhinn Finnegan), a young unwed single mother with a talent for making up songs on the spot—including the catchy titular tune—waits tables, plays peacemaker and nurses a broken, distrusting heart.

The large cast of characters that parade through the pub is impressive, entertaining and revealing. There’s Danger Mullaly (a thoroughly entertaining, poignant Thomas O’Neill), the local scoundrel about town; adept at getting others to spot him a pint of porter gold as he peddles miniature holy pictures, he’s a lovable scallywag with his own tale of woe. Then there’s local farm family the Dins, led by patriarch and matriarch Daheen Timineen and Maynan (played with Irish Gothic severity and resolve by James Phelan and Tina McCulloch), sending a new pair of young adult children off to England. Kevin (Emmet Leahy, as the stand-up, protective elder of the two) and Dinny (William Laxamana, as the soft-spoken, anxious younger lad) have a foreman older brother waiting for them with jobs at a London factory. And as he awaits their train departure, Kevin takes a shine to Peg and promises to write.

A year later, the Din boys return for a visit—and one of them has brought a British wife to meet the family: Dot (played with vivacious flare by Sofie Jarvis). Their parents are preparing to send another pair off; this time, daughters Maggie and Mary (shy and anxious twins Healey-Murphy and Emma Darmody). Also bursting onto the scene are local fortune teller Kitty Curley (Anne Harper, with a larger-than-life jocularity and penchant for the mysterious), with her melodeon player colleague Davy in tow (Schaumann); and local member of Irish Parliament J.J. Houlihan (David Eden, in a pompous, entitled politician turn), who’s just procured a plum position for his underqualified son Johnny (Liam Keenan, quiet and unassuming). And there’s the new schoolteacher Maurice Brown (played with affable, awkward charm by Aaron Walsh), one of the few among the younger generation to stay behind—and who also has his eye on Peg.

Weaving lively and wistful songs with snatches of daily life, we’re in a world that has one foot in the past and the other in the future, as generations-old farming families continue to find themselves forced to give over to ever-changing modern times, sending their children off into the strange world and temptations of the big city in a bid to survive. Hopes and dreams of future prosperity blend with the heart of, and longing for, home; with brave faces and humourous antics masking the pain and heartache beneath.

many young men 20 cast & crew
Cast & crew. Set design by Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy. Costume design by Bernadette Hunt. Lighting design by Karlos Griffith. 

Melancholy and hopeful, spirited and wistful, Many Young Men of Twenty takes us to a period of youthful immigration—coming in waves that stretched well before the 1960s and onward into today—where young people must grow up quickly as they leave home for new countries to make a new life for themselves, often while tasked with supporting their families back home. Brave, heartbroken and anxious—yet hopeful, aspiring and determined. And universal in its portrayal of the choices and sacrifices that are made in the face of a changing world.

With shouts to the design team: Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy (set), Bernadette Hunt (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound), and the small army worked behind the scenes, for their fine, evocative work on creating this time and place.

Many Young Men of Twenty continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until February 29; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888.

Neighbour vs. neighbour in the timely, poignant The Land Grabber

The Toronto Irish Players present the North American premiere of James Phelan and Edward F. Barrett’s The Land Grabber, directed by Kristin Chan and opening last night on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage. A farm in 1881 County Kerry becomes a microcosm of the social and political unrest in Ireland as The Land War between tenant farmers protesting landlords’ arbitrary rent increases and evictions erupts. Living in the shadow of The Great Famine and the more recent Little Famine, neighbour is pitted against neighbour when one farmer, bent on expanding local food production, purchases an evicted neighbour’s farm; all legal, but morally abhorrent—and resulting in far-reaching and tragic consequences.

The Land Grabber is a revised version of Barrett’s (Phelan’s maternal grandfather) The Grabber, which was produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in November 1918, following revisions suggested by W.B. Yeats. A teenaged Phelan found a hand-written draft of the play and, years later, set about reviving the play in 2013 with the assistance of dramaturge/co-producer Maureen Lukie.

Successful farmer Johnny Foley (Thomas O’Neill) has his eye on an adjacent property and aims to marry off his daughter Mary (Meghan de Chastelain) in order to secure it. Mary has other plans and refuses, supported by her mother Ellen (Kelly-Marie Murtha). A visit from Pat Walsh (Ted Powers), a struggling neighbour at risk of eviction—and an old flame of Ellen’s—prompts assistance from Johnny’s son Billy (Blake Canning), who sets aside his own farm chores to till Pat’s land while Pat heads to the local fair to sell livestock in an 11th hour attempt to save his farm.

Despite his best efforts and successful sale, Pat is too late—and even his wealthy widow sister Kitty (Donna O’Regan) is unable to help—and the Bailiff (Dermot Walsh) arrives to execute the eviction. When Pat refuses to leave his home and the battering ram begins its heart-stopping assault on his front door,* his neighbours come out to protest—all except Johnny—and Pat and his medical student son Bryan (Paul Micucci) are injured as their home comes crashing down around their ears. Unbeknownst to even his own family, Johnny has already made a deal to pay off what Pat owes in rent and take over the Walsh farm. Refusing to listen to the protests of his family or consider alternative political solutions from Pat, who belongs to the Irish National Land League, Johnny goes ahead with his plan to grab Pat’s land.

The Foley family is subsequently shunned and oppressed by their neighbours; and Johnny is oblivious to the pain and suffering his actions have brought on his wife and children. Mary, who had left home to take a governess position, returns to be with her family and has her own decision to make; despondent and at her wit’s end, Ellen becomes a virtual recluse, choosing to worship at home to avoid the stone throwing and spitting; and the spirited, fair-minded Billy stands up for what he feels is right, refusing to side with his father. Meanwhile, Pat has gone into politics to further the cause and is doing well. Unable to sell locally, Johnny is force to travel to other towns. Tragedy ensues, and events threaten Mary and Bryan’s plans to marry when local police (Emmet Leahy and Benjamin Phelan) consider Bryan a suspect in a recent attack on the family. Eventually, Johnny is compelled to reconsider his acquisition of the Walsh farm—but all too late.

O’Neill is a compelling presence as Johnny; arrogant, stubborn and heavy-handed, there’s a world of pain and shame beneath that harsh exterior. Deeply scarred by the Famine and obsessed with making sure no one starves to death again, Johnny is deaf to alternate solutions and blind to the suffering of his own family—who, ironically, he’s most concerned about protecting. Murtha gives a gentle and heartbreaking performance as the loyal, religiously devout Ellen; but even Ellen can only take so much as their world is destroyed by her husband’s short-sighted, selfish decisions. Powers is playfully charming and politically astute as the determined, forward-thinking Pat; committed to a political solution to his fellow tenants’ predicament, he turns lemons to lemonade as he translates his knowledge and experience of farming issues to the political sphere. O’Regan is a feisty treat as the lusty widow Kitty; with a head for business and an appreciation strapping young men, Kitty injects both keen pragmatism and irreverent humour to the proceedings.

It’s a timely production for GTA audiences, given the current climate of high rents, rescinded rent controls and low vacancy rates, combined with frozen wages and a job market that increasingly favours precarious part-time/contract work over more secure permanent full-time positions. Landlords execute suspect renovictions, claiming they or family members are moving in, or turf long-term tenants in favour of opening Airbnb spaces; and tenants fight back with protests, rent strikes and deputations to local government. Desperate times can push people to desperate, sometimes selfish, measures—and also to new, innovative solutions—and hard times bring out the best and the worst in us.

With shouts to the fine design team for their work on this historical drama: Sean Treacy, co-producer Geraldine Browne and Anne Lyons (set); Karlos Griffith (lighting); Dan Schaumann (sound); and Bernadette Hunt (costumes).

The Land Grabber continues on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage until March 2; advance tickets available online.

*The production poster at the top of this post features an archival photo of this kind of  eviction action.

The bittersweet rhythms of life in the wistful, nostalgic, entertaining Dancing at Lughnasa

Opening its 2018-19 season at Alumnae Theatre last night, the Toronto Irish Players take us to 1936 Donegal, and the rural home of the Mundy family as they struggle with life, love and changing times, in their wistful, nostalgic and entertaining production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by David Eden.

A bittersweet memory play, we’re hosted by narrator Michael (Enda Reilly), who was raised by his single mother, spirited, irreverent Christina (Lauren McGinty) and her four sisters. Their parents dead, the eldest resident sibling and local school teacher, the prim and proper Kate (Erin Jones) is the de facto matriarch; family clown Maggie (Rebecca De La Cour) looks after the small family farm; and the quiet Agnes (Donna O’Regan) and simple-minded Rose (Áine Donnelly) earn money by knitting gloves.

The return of their brother Father Jack (Ian McGarrett), sent home from his mission in Uganda by his superiors, both causes and coincides with significant changes in their lives and position in their home village of Ballybeg—especially lending truth to the rumour that Jack was dismissed for “going native” and adapting, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a too familiar and accepting attitude of local custom and ritual. Industrialization is catching up with rural Ireland, and factory-made goods are putting handwork at risk. Ongoing, if not sporadic, visits from Michael’s father Gerry (Sean Gilheany), a Welsh wanderer turned gramophone salesman, give the family—especially Christina and Michael—rare and welcome glimpses of the possibility of hope for something better; and a brief respite from the dullness of their workaday lives and the stresses of making ends meet during the Depression.

The family’s individual and collective history is both merry and melancholy; and lives are forever changed by forces largely beyond their control. And while Michael acknowledges the hard times of struggle, sacrifice and loss, he takes heart from the good times the family shared together—the love, laughter and dancing around the Marconi wireless. The rhythms of life, love and changing times.

Lovely work from the cast in creating this intimate family story. Reilly’s Michael makes for an affable and animated host; and he’s especially adept at conjuring the wide-eyed, precocious and imaginative child Michael. De La Cour is a treat as the feisty jokester Maggie; using humour to cheer and diffuse tension, her glass-half-full perspective is also crucial to her own survival. O’Regan and Donnelly have a beautiful rapport as the BFF sisters, the unassuming, protective Agnes and the child-like, naive Rose, who both come to show there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to notions of romance. McGinty gives a well-rounded performance as the conflicted young mother Christina; the family beauty, and raising the love child of a man she hardly ever sees, Christina’s youth has been interrupted by the more pragmatic concerns of a single mother—and in a time and place that frowned upon women like her. In classic Irish matriarch fashion, Jones’s Kate says as much with a look or gesture as she does with a word; having missed on romance herself, Kate’s stern disposition also a masks a broken heart.

McGarrett gives a poignant performance as the sisters’ brother Father Jack; once the golden boy of the family and the village, Jack has returned, frail and barely recognizable, and hardly knowing his own hometown. And Gilheany gives a charming turn as Gerry; a man of the road who loves to love, Gerry means well, but has trouble with the follow-up.

With shouts to the design team for their evocative work in transporting us to this nostalgic Depression-era world of memory and family in rural Donegal, Ireland: Chandos Ross (set), Livia Pravato (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound).

Dancing at Lughnasa continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until November 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. Keep up with The Irish Players on Facebook and Twitter.

Head & heart, & two sisters in love in the delightful, youthful Sense & Sensibility

Photo by Dave Fitzpatrick: Conor Ling, Jackie Mahoney & Tamara Freeman

Amicus Productions takes us to the early 1800s England of Jane Austen with Jessica Swale’s adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, directed by Maureen Lukie, assisted by Ted Powers, and currently running in the Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills.

Mrs. Dashwood (Peta Bailey) and her daughters Elinor (Tamara Freeman), Marianne (Jackie Mahoney) and Margaret (Sara Douglas) have just learned that their beloved husband and father has died. Adding insult to injury, their Norland Park estate is being taken over by the Dashwood male heir John (Andrew Horbatuik) and his wife Fanny (Mandi Sunshine), and they must now find a place to live. During the transfer of ownership, Fanny’s brother Edward (Conor Ling) comes to visit, and an attachment forms between him and Elinor. With high and rich family hopes for Edward’s marriage, Fanny blocks the relationship just as the Dashwood women learn of a cottage that’s available on the estate of a relative in Devonshire. And Elinor and Edward barely have a chance to say goodbye.

It’s an extreme downscale for the Dashwoods; they can bring no horses and only one servant (Horbatuik as Thomas). But they find a great, warm welcome from the high-spirited, eccentric Sir John (Rob Candy) and his mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings (Jenn Keay). And their quiet cottage life gets interesting with the appearance of Sir John’s friend Colonel Brandon (Matthew Payne) and a dashing young noble Willoughby (Rouvan Silogix), who rescues Marianne after a fall. Both have eyes for Marianne, but Marianne only has eyes for Willoughby, who returns her attentions with romantic gestures and implications of marriage.

Marianne’s bliss is short-lived, though, as Willoughby gets sent to London by his wealthy aunt. And Brandon has some distressing information about Willoughby’s history, which he confides to Elinor. Meanwhile, in her never-ending crusade to find husbands for the two older Dashwood sisters, Mrs. Jennings plans a trip to London to enjoy the balls and diversions of the season. And things get even more complicated for Elinor when their travel companion Lucy Steele (Riley Nelson) confesses a secret four-year-old engagement with Edward!

Things go from bad to worse in London when the Dashwood sisters have an unpleasant, awkward encounter with Willoughby at a ball, and learn via neighbourhood gossips (Lindsay Bryan and Sharon Kamiel) that he is engaged to the wealthy Miss Grey (Bryan). On their way home, escorted by Brandon, Elinor and Marianne stop at the home of Mrs. Jennings’ daughter Mrs. Palmer (Bryan) and Mr. Palmer (Horbatuik), where Marianne comes down with a life-threatening infection.

But don’t worry, the girls get home safe and new, happier revelations emerge.

There is a youthful edge to this adaptation; full of heart and charm. For those familiar with the book and the film adaptation by Emma Thompson, directed by Ang Lee, Swale has added some scenes that we would previously have only guessed at. One in particular highlights Willoughby’s misery at his reliance on a rich relation, and his regret at choosing money over love.

With shouts to the design team: Arash Eshghpour (set), Karlos Griffith (lighting), Dave Fitzpatrick (sound) and Lindsay Forde (costume); and to choreographer Karen Millyard.

Lovely work from the cast in this nicely staged adaptation; the scenes weaving in and out, shifting in time and space with well-paced precision—shouts to director Lukie and stage manager Cherie Oldenburg.

Stand-out performances include Freeman’s Elinor; a complex, layering of sensible, kind, discreet and accommodating, coupled with deeply felt emotional responses and heroic efforts to keep them in check. Throughout, Elinor is the confessor; hearing many secrets and troubles, but unable to divulge them, including the secrets of her own heart. Mahoney’s Marianne is the polar opposite of Elinor; high-spirited and stubborn, she has a passionate soul and wears her heart on her sleeve. Her romantic tendencies get a harsh dose of reality, but rather than being destroyed, she is tempered and becomes more circumspect. And Douglas’s Margaret is charming; an adorably precocious, whip-smart naturalist in the making, she sees more than the grown-ups think and doesn’t have their internal editor at play.

Ling gives a great turn as the painfully shy, bookish and affable Edward; and he does hilarious double duty as Edward’s buffoonish younger brother Robert. Candy and Keay are a laugh riot as the dynamic duo chatterboxes—the jolly and sociable Sir John and the one-woman OkCupid Mrs. Jennings—always up on the latest gossip and ready for a party. And nice work from Payne as the honourable, wounded and introspective Brandon; Silogix’s cheeky, handsome romantic Willoughby; and Sunshine’s waspish, greedy Fanny.

Head and heart, and two sisters in love in the delightful, youthful Sense and Sensibility.

Sense and Sensibility continues at the Papermill Theatre until Feb 11; check here for ticket purchase/info or call 416-860-6176.

You can keep up with Amicus Productions on Twitter and Facebook.