By Tulis McCall
Quietly, now at the beautifully renovated Irish Repertory Theatre, is a play whose tale is a noble one. And reading the reviews after seeing it reminds me why I love and cannot explain the theatre. I did not see the play that others saw. This one did not grab me by the throat. It left me wondering, though.
It is Belfast, 36 years after a 1974 incident in which two 16-year old boys were involved. Ian (Declan Conlon) and Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane) were on opposite sides. Ian was with the Protestants and Jimmy with the Catholics. Or as these two remember it “The Orange Bastards” and the “Feinian Bastards.” Ian was the boy who threw the bomb, and Jimmy was the one whose family it destroyed.
Now they are here, in a pub owned by a Polish immigrant Robert (Robert Zawadzki), whose attention is divided between the two men, the television with an international soccer game on (Poland vs. Northern Ireland as a matter of fact) and the kids outside his door. If the game does not go their way they might take their frustration inside to the bar.
The setting is a fine one. There are layers upon layers of history and contemporary facts. Northern Ireland has passed the era of The Troubles, but that does not mean all is well. Memories smolder, and it does not take more than a match to light a fire of prejudice. One cannot watch this play without thinking of the stink that Donald Trump is stirring in his caldron. Anger and hatred are simmering all about. It takes focus on something higher, more noble, to redirect us. And this focus is not always apparent, especially when people in the spotlight are sucking up all the air and focusing on their own private psychological abscess.
These two men square off. Prior to Ian’s arrival, Jimmy tells Robert, “We all need to be heard at the same time.” It is an offhand remark, but it becomes the fulcrum of this story. Ian has come to say what he has to say so that his life can stop being a living Hell. Jimmy is not an easy audience and is in no mood to forgive, or, frankly, to listen. But these are Irishmen, and the Irish love their words. And in the end it is the words that take over.
Ian is eventually allowed to tell the story, the center of which is that he was 16, and the adults who surrounded him were his guides. He can apologize as a man, but not speak for the boy he was. For Jimmy, this is not acceptable because it was the boy that Ian was who blew his life to Hell. Eventually, however, the two men listen to one another – or as Fran Leibowitz might say, they wait for the other to finish before they start talking. Whether they listen. Whether they hear. That we never know.
As I said this is a story of great magnitude. And now that this country is being besieged by it’s own Troubles, there is room here for a new empathy that we might not have had years ago. The text of this story, however, does not measure up to the task. The dialogue between these two men lacks credulity. Two enemies don’t pour out their hearts within 15 minutes of meeting. Plain and simple. This is a tale that begs for twists and switchback turns. Instead what we got was something you might find in a book of war stories where two people laid it out the opposing tales, and there it might have worked. Or in readers’ theatre. As a play, it lacked the passion of the reality on which it focused. The direction and performances did little to raise the bar.
Still, it got me thinking. How do we forgive people who have wronged us? Most of us just deal with the day to day perceived insults. The woman walking her dogs would not let them stop even though they clearly wanted to say hello to you. A friend does not invite you to her cottage for the first time in years. A potential client does not return calls. And then there are the real ones. Your job is threatened; someone is mean to your child; and of course the ubiquitous third finger from a NYC driver. How little it takes to hurt us or enrage us. How do we forgive those people and sooth those boo-boos? That is the life question to beat the band. And as the Buddhist monk pointed out to his student, until we conquer those resentments that live in our hearts and seem so innocent – how could they affect anything??? Until we do that, there will always be war.
So two Irish guys walking into a bar is, on many, many levels, a big deal.
Quietly – Written by Owen McCafferty; Directed by Jimmy Fay
Cast Patrick O’Kane, Robert Zawadzki and Declan Conlon
Irish Repertory Theatre, Charlotte Moore, Artistic Director and Ciaran O’Reilly, Producing Director, In Association with The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director and Patrick Willingham, Executive Director; 132 W. 22nd St. through September 11, 2016; 866-811-4111