Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

A Statue for Ballybunion
San Jose Playhouse
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's recent review of Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer

Angie Higgins and Jeff Kramer
Photo Courtesy of San Jose Playhouse
It is January 1998, and after deadly decades of "The Troubles," the prospects for peace in Ireland are looking better than ever, with much help coming from the leader of the free world, United States President Bill Clinton. But on the craggy, western shores of Kerry County, things are not looking so rosy for the small town of Ballybunion. The local castle ruin and symbol of the town is crumbling to pieces, the foreign tourists no longer are coming to play golf, and the bankers are calling for payments on the mostly broke town's outstanding loans. To make matters worse, the younger generation is moving to Dublin and beyond in droves. For months the Ballybunion Improvement Committee has been meeting in Costello's Public House & Pub, but no matter how many whiskeys and Guinnesses are downed, no idea for saving the town has emerged, and members time and again leave pissed–in more ways than one. But then after one final meeting, a booze-inspired, luck-of-the-Irish idea emerges: erect a statue to the great peacemaker, Bill Clinton, and convince him to come to Ballybunion for its unveiling.

Following its pre-pandemic world premiere in Dublin, Ireland, San Jose Playhouse is presenting the U.S. premiere production of A Statue for Ballybunion, produced by Kilnasheen Productions/George Marcus and Guggenheim Entertainment, a delightfully quirky comedy packed full of both Irish humor and pathos, written by former mayor of San Jose and now newspaper columnist and author of numerous books, Tom McEnery. According to program notes by the playwright himself, "Almost every major event [accounted in the play] is just as it actually happened in that fateful year, on that very day and all the astounding events leading up to it."

How an eclectic group of townspeople pull off the impossible becomes a story that smacks of the kind of fiction that an evening of downing pints in the pub might produce; but in this case, fact is much stranger than any fictional tale could ever be. And in true Irish tradition, the real story is a whopper that is full of comic twists and turns and near tragedies galore and also populated with an endearing group of unorthodox, local characters. All adds up to an intriguing, highly entertaining true tale that is, at its heart, a playwright's love story to the homeland of his own emigrating grandparents.

Jackie (Jeff Kramer) is owner of the local pub and the town's gathering spot for gossip, debate, and rehashing of past victories and defeats by the heroes of Irish history. As one patron notes, "This pub was the information highway long before any of your Silicon Valley crowd." Jackie is also by far the biggest optimist among many believers that the town is soon going to be another addition to a long line of Irish sad stories of old.

Chief among the naysayers is Jackie's own daughter, Kate (Angie Higgins), who counters his cheerleading nature with a stubborn streak of skepticism and even cynicism about the town and Ireland. Any suggestion from her father or others of a new path to a brighter future for Ballybunion is met with disbelief by Kate, who sees no real hope for her or for the town. "We've been avoiding truth for a long time; it's our way," she dryly bemoans. Like others of her generation, Kate admits, "I keep my passport and a ticket out of Shannon Airport in my purse ... Ireland is a land of good-byes."

Jackie is up against a formidable wall of other skeptics, too. His golfing buddy Austin (Tom Gough) tries to be supportive but is sick and tired of all the arguing at the Improvement Committee meetings that produce nothing but hard feelings. John Joe Mulcahy (Jackson Davis) is only interested in erecting a statue to one of the heroes of Ireland's storied past of often brutal defeats. Old Hannah (Susan Gundunas) struggles on her cane to get to a table to enjoy her Guinness, as she sings in notes full of emotion to voice a lifetime of love for her country but also of her continued disappointments, "Many young men of twenty said goodbye ... sailed away and let me here to die." At the same time, she is tired, too, of the focus on the past, urging her fellow committee members to "Save us from the ghosts of a nation and the fools that worship them."

Just as it seems the committee has reached another frustrating evening of impasse, Tommy (James P. Reber)–a pub patron who habitually sits head-down in a corner sipping his pint and never speaking to anyone–suddenly rises stiffly, slowly to say one word, "Clinton." When asked to tease that one word out a bit, Tommy crackles with a bit of twinkle in his eye, "Clinton's the man; invite him; he'll come; tis said he plays golf."

And from that quite bizarre, out-of-the-blue suggestion from the most unlikely of sources, the committee that could never agree on any idea suddenly springs into a whirlwind of action with ideas popping left and right, leading to the decision to construct the world's first statue to the "man of peace" who would want to be in Ireland if and when the Belfast Agreement he had helped broker is finally signed. The only trick now is to raise 10,000 pounds, find a sculptor, and convince Bill Clinton to take a post-signing detour to an unknown town with a decaying castle monument to witness the unveiling.

As penned by playwright McEnery and directed by Jeffrey Bracco, the subsequent events play out in a unique manner that combines the feeling of a live-action documentary of what happened, how, and when with a stage comedy that again and again appears too ridiculously funny actually to be anywhere near the truth. Just to make the script and the play even more rich and enjoyable, the playwright also inserted a story of a Yankee come home to meet and woo the unlikely love of his life.

Serendipitously, just as this idea of a statue for Clinton emerges, New Yorker Jim O'Connor (Andre Leben) returns to visit the hometown where his parents grew up and met. And lucky for Ballybunion, twenty-something Jim arrives with three things going in the town's favor: 1. Rose-colored glasses in regard to what he sees as a charming town and an irresistible countryside; 2. A friend high up in the White House staff who has possible influence on the president and his schedule; and most importantly, 3. An immediate attraction to a woman who at first shows absolutely no interest in him but ensures that he is not going anywhere soon–that woman being none other than Kate.

Unlike much of Irish history, truth be told that this chapter of local yore will end happily for all. However, intervening events like Monica Lewinsky and her dress as well as an impending impeachment trial do cause some bumps along the way that on the coast of Kerry, only adding both to the tension and the humor of the story we are witnessing. Not to be overlooked is a tale to be told of high adventure involving a certain statue as well as a comedy of romance packed with not-interested-in-the-least rejections from one half and cheerful, playful persistence by the other.

Across the board, the cast of eight portrays with grit and gusto this crazy collection of locals along with a returning son and grandson who appears to have come with lucky shamrocks tucked away in his pockets. Jerald Ends has created a homey, authentic pub setting that seems to say to us the audience, "Come on up, have a seat at the bench, and enjoy a pint or two with us." Julie Engelbrecht's costume designs add to the local color and to each person's particular personality, while Ariana Khan deserves a load of kudos for so ably coaching the Irish dialects of each and every habitant of Ballybunion that we meet.

What better way to learn a bit of overlooked history steeped deep in the long-awaited miracle of peace as well as the tragic embarrassment of impeachment than by spending a couple of hours chuckling through what are mostly facts that so often seem like pure fiction. San Jose Playhouse's presentation is a too-short, ten-day run of Tom McEnery's highly entertaining and enlightening A Statue for Ballybunion.

A Statue for Ballybunion runs through March 26, 2023, presented by San Jose Playhouse (in conjunction with Kilnasheen Productions and Guggenheim Entertainment, Inc.) at 3Below Theatres, 288 S. 2nd Street, San Jose CA. For tickets and information, please visit .