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.

Three generations of women navigate life, love & those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem

Top to bottom: Rebecca De La Cour, Barbara Taylor & Billie Jean Shannon. Photo by Sean Walsh.

The Toronto Irish Players (TIP) opened their production of Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, directed by Cliona Kenny, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage to a packed house last night.

Drawing from the old tradition of the Gaelic storyteller (the Seanachai), Little Gem’s commentator device uses a Trinitarian approach—in this case, the story is told from the perspectives of three women: a granddaughter, a mother and grandmother from the same family.

Set in present-day Dublin, we open on Amber’s (Billie Jean Shannon) tale of the fateful night of her Debs (a city-wide high school prom), and the complex emotional dance of relationships with her boyfriend Paul and school teach-like bff Jo. Then, there’s her mother Lorraine (Rebecca De La Cour), a single mom, husband Ray long gone to who knows where, who works in a department store. She’s been forced to go on leave and see a shrink after she loses it on an extremely annoying and vindictive regular customer. And there’s Kay, Lorraine’s ma (Barbara Taylor), a breast cancer survivor and 24/7 caregiver to her husband Gem, struggling with an itch of her own.

Lovely, compelling—and endearingly comical—work from these three actors; each bringing her own brand of outspoken cheek, feistiness and strength to these characters. Shannon gives us a youthful, impetuous, and keen sense of social awareness and observation to Amber. Mouthy and full of teen sass and mortification, Amber’s a master at projecting an image of giving zero fucks, but there’s a tender, loving heart there that also longs to be loved. De La Cour brings a desperate housewife, poignant sense of resiliency to Lorraine. An anxious, exhausted member of the sandwich generation, Lorraine struggles to communicate with her distant teenage daughter, and worries about the well-being of her aging mother and seriously ill father; and she finds that she can’t stress clean away her own sense of loneliness and lack of a definitive life of her own. Taylor is a laugh riot and a force to be reckoned with as the family matriarch. Now in the winter years of life, there’s heat in that tired 60-something body yet—and Kay’s stubborn sense of resolve overcomes any sense of pride or shame as she actively, and at times hilariously, seeks solutions to her problems. Eschewing spoilers, I’ll have to leave it at that—and you’ll have to go see for yourself.

Life goes on for these three women; and unexpected events change the course of the day-to-day, forcing challenging decisions, personal growth, and acts of strength and courage. And, in the process, the lives of these three women—living separately together—are brought together into new and closer bonds of family and womanhood.

Nicely staged, on an effective and minimalist set featuring beautifully rendered charcoal family portraits (set by Bernadette Hunt and Sean Treacy), each character has her own playing area, with each storyteller staying within her own space until these inextricably intertwined lives gradually come closer together during the final scenes.

Three generations of women navigate life, love and those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem.

Little Gem continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until March 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. The Irish Players are an extremely popular local community company, so advance booking strongly recommended.

And no worries about thinking this is a “chick play,” the men were laughing as hard as the women. Having said that, it also struck me that, even though Mother’s Day is some months away, this is the perfect girls’ night out for women, their moms and grandmothers.