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The Home Place

Theatre Review by David Hurst - October 10, 2017

Christopher Randolph, Stephen Pilkington,
John Windsor-Cunningham, Ed Malone, Rachel Pickup,
Gordon Tashjian, Andrea Lynn Green and Johnny Hopkins
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The late Irish playwright Brian Friel (1929-2015) gave us more than five decades of dazzling drama including Philadelphia, Here I Come (1964), Faith Healer (1979), and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990). Frequently likened to Chekhov in his introspective examinations of family relationships, Friel's The Home Place (2005) was his last play set in the town of Ballybeg (the fictional location for many of his works) and his final full-scale work. It also happens to be the first offering of the fall season at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Set in 1878 as the pushback to Ascendancy authority is gaining momentum (and before the Land Wars have begun), The Home Place is tricky because it requires at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Home rule movement in 19th century Ireland to follow the plot and the character's motivations. Unfortunately, it's difficult to judge the totality of Friel's play based on the uneven staging currently on view at the Irish Rep. Yet despite its shortcomings, Friel's writing still shimmers with its customary lyricism.

It's summer in Friel's Ballybeg of 1878 and tensions are running high following the murder of Lord Lifford, a despised English landlord. The action opens at the home of the widowed landlord Christopher Gore (an underpowered John Windsor-Cunningham), living in exile from England where his "home place" is Kent. Gore lives at the Lodge with his son David (a sympathetic Ed Malone), housemaid Sally Cavanagh (a saucy Andrea Lynn Green) and their longtime housekeeper, Margaret O'Donnell (the lovely Rachel Pickup), who's won the affections of both father and son. Margaret and David have fallen in love and want to strike out on their own but she's loath to hurt Christopher, a man who's shown her kindness for many years.

Visiting at the Lodge is Christopher's cousin, Dr. Richard Gore (an appropriately irritating Christopher Randolph) and his assistant Perkins (a solid Stephen Pilkington). An anthropologist who's traveling thru Ireland recording the physical characteristics of the locals, Richard's exploitative methods (he takes cranial measurements) and racist hypotheses have incurred the wrath of Sally's beau, Con Doherty (an excellent Johnny Hopkins), and his muscled henchman, Johnny McLoone (a menacing Gordon Tashjian). When Doherty and McLoone demand that Richard and Perkins leave immediately, Christopher is caught in the middle between his cousin, the locals who live on his land and the fate of Lord Lifford whose funeral that morning is still fresh in his memory.

Taking place over the course of a single day, The Home Place also contains a subplot involving Margaret's father, Clement O'Donnell (a convincing Robert Langdon Lloyd), who embarrasses his daughter with his drinking and unpolished manner. Clement is the choirmaster at the nearby church school and we hear snippets of the choir singing throughout the play.

As directed by the Rep's Artistic Director, Charlotte Moore, The Home Place has a difficult time allowing its themes of exile, identity, language and oppression to be explored to their fullest. The main reason for this is the miscasting of Windsor-Cunningham in the pivotal role of Christopher Gore. Lacking both the requisite authority and stage presence, Windsor-Cunningham projects an insecurity at odds with the demands of his character. Christopher drives the play and, though he gets through it, Windsor-Cunningham isn't the engine the piece needs. Pickup does lovely work as the housekeeper Margaret and, as Dr. Richard Gore's assistant, Pilkington is charming. Similarly, in two small supporting turns, both Polly McKie and Logan Riley Bruner feel authentic as locals who "volunteer" to be studied at the risk of humiliation and in hopes of more than just a photograph for their efforts. It's a shame both Hopkins and Tashjian have so little stage time as both of their characters were more interesting than the principals in this competent but unbalanced production.

The Home Place
Through November 19
The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix