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.

Lost music dreams & turbulent family reunion in Rare Day Projects’ bittersweet, poignant, funny A Very Different Place

Clockwise, from top left: Jeanette Dagger, Rosemary Doyle & Alexzander McLarry. Photo by Deborah Ann Frankel.

 

You can’t go home again, but maybe you can meet where you are. Rare Day Projects presents Carol Libman’s drama about lost dreams and family reunion, A Very Different Place, directed by Robin Haggerty and opening last night at Red Sandcastle Theatre. This world premiere began as a short play in Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival, later emerging at Big Ideas and Next Stage readings before reaching its current form at Red Sandcastle.

Teri (Rosemary Doyle) left home almost 20 years ago to pursue a career as a jazz singer with a talented man she loved—and that’s not all she left behind. Her mother Marge (Jeanette Dagger) was left to raise her son Mike (Alexzander McLarry). After a chance meeting in a Calgary hospital, where Teri now works as a nurse, Mike hatches a plan for a family reunion between his mother and grandmother at their home in Toronto—a plan that gets fast-tracked when Marge falls and breaks her hip. He needs to get back to work on an oil rig out west in a few days, and Marge—despite protestations to the contrary—needs assistance at home while she recovers and gets physiotherapy. Enter Teri, and the mother/daughter battle begins!

Old wounds, misunderstandings, resentments and suspicions emerge as Teri and Marge struggle through past and current conflicts—and try to make peace for Mike’s sake. Mike finds himself in the middle of the fray, playing peacemaker when all he wanted was to get his family back together. And Teri’s desperately trying to stay sober through the stress of this homecoming; attending AA meetings, where she addresses us as fellow Friends of Bill.

Nicely staged, with a turbulent musical prologue and snippets of classical piano favourites featured throughout (expertly played by Dagger) and a touching mother/daughter duet on “Summertime” (with Doyle shining on the vocals), A Very Different Place is bookended with music and moments of Teri’s AA sharing.

Lovely work from the cast in this touching, often sharply funny, three-hander—featuring some especially moving two-hander scenes between mother and daughter, and mother and son. Dagger’s Marge is a tough but amiable old gal with a decided stubborn, independent streak and an unbreakable determination to do what’s best, even if it costs her. Doyle’s Teri is a troubled adult child struggling to reconcile past and future choices, wobbling on the edge of petulant teen in the face of family conflict. Equally firm in her pursuit of independence—she comes by it honestly—like Marge, who once dreamed of being a concert pianist, Teri feels the sting of lost music career dreams and the necessity of setting herself on a new path in order to survive. McLarry does a great job as the glue trying to hold this family together as Mike navigates his own internal conflicts; like Marge and Teri, his life took an unexpected turn when he was forced to go west to find work. Setting up this family reunion as much for himself as for his grandmother and mother, Mike finds himself playing adult/referee when, deep down, he wants to feel a kid’s experience of love and family.

With shouts to SM/Technical Director Deborah Ann Frankel for juggling multiple tasks in the booth.

A Very Different Place continues at Red Sandcastle until May 13, with evening performances at 8 pm May 8 to 12; and matinees at 2 pm on May 10, 12 and 13. Tickets available at the door, by calling the Box Office at 416-845-9411 or going online.