Sometimes a beautiful woman’s yearning gaze isn’t sufficient to hold a piece of theater together that has too many moving parts. Women offer those gazes, to varying effect, in two differently structured plays dealing with British and Irish historical stories that are now calling two NYC stages home.
Uptown, Elizabeth McGovern, who played Cora, the American-born upper-class matriarch on Downton Abbey, is essaying a hard-edged, harrowing, widowed British matriarch in a revival of J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways at the American Airlines Theatre. In that production, one character’s intense and mournful gaze underscores set changes, cultural shifts, and time passing. Downtown, Irish Rep’s revival of the late Brian Friel’s The Home Place begins and ends with a haunted female gaze, inspired by music and memory. Despite Charlotte Moore’s elegant direction, that gaze, and the moments it underscores, is hampered by a plot burdened with too many notes.
Set in 1878, The Home Place takes place on a single day in the life of an Irish estate occupied by widower Christopher Gore (sad and earnest John Windsor-Cunningham), his son David (lanky Ed Malone), their servants, and a raft of visitors. James Noone’s set, bathed in Michael Gottlieb’s yellow and green lighting, transforms Irish Rep’s compact stage and provides potent clues to the politics of the plot.
We first meet the elegant and seasoned servant Margaret (gorgeous and precise Rachel Pickup) and her junior, Sally (athletic and composed Andrea Lynn Green), who cares little for the upper-class niceties that her job forces her to observe. Rabble-rousing working man Johnny (lurking Gordon Tashjian), and Sally’s boyfriend and rebel leader Con (coiled and dangerous Johnny Hopkins) visit Sally and again later on to challenge visitors to the estate — representing the ongoing tenant unrest. Margaret warns Sally of the “whispering defiance” of her boyfriend and his own talk of rebellion. Still new to being in service, Sally observes Margaret’s use of “we” when speaking of the household, and of her acceptance of upper-class ways and values. “You’ll do anything to be one of the toffs,” she sniffs.
Christopher and David return from a funeral for an area landowner who may have been killed by rebelling tenants and who may have abused Sally when she worked for the deceased as a younger woman. Their cousin — the insidious and bigoted Dr. Richard Gore (Christopher Randolph), along with his colleague, Perkins (Stephen Pilkington) — visit later in the day to take the measurements of two tenant workers: Mary (aching and memorable Polly McKie) and Tommy (energetic Logan Riley Bruner). To round out an over-packed cast of plot points and characters, there’s a visit by Margaret’s father, drunken choir master Clement (played to an Alfred P. Doolittle fare-thee-well by Robert Langdon Lloyd), who aims to cadge some dollars from the Gores, which both embarrasses Margaret and reminds her of her origins.
The title of Friel’s 2005 play is both ironic and ambiguous. Christopher Gore is estranged from his Kentish homeland; from his adopted Ireland, where class warfare is afoot; and from his housekeeper Margaret, for whom he not only has romantic feelings but must endure the fact that she and his son are in love. Margaret has built a home with the upper-class Gores, yet she is drawn back to the beauty of her class, of her origins, through the music of her father, who favored the Irish poet, singer-songwriter, Thomas Moore.
Pickup is luminous and lovely as Margaret but, in this staging, her character is clearly the spine of the story; director Moore highlights her struggle among the various overlapping plot points. Falcons overhead, to which she looks longingly in the opening and closing moments of the play, give the production a dreamy wistfulness and a hint of danger. Yet the narrative, filled with extraneousness, ultimately weakens even Pickup’s excellent work.
Friel’s pared-down experiment in sequential monologue (Faith Healer) and playful Afterplay (imagining a meeting of Sonya from Uncle Vanya and Andrey from The Three Sisters) showed the playwright successfully toying with form and Chekhov. The Home Place, on the other hand, takes a classic Chekhov construct — a multi-character plot set on an estate — and layers on top of it a fraught moment in Anglo-Irish relations and a distasteful flavor of classism and racism. There’s too much to take away when the thing that you want, ultimately, is to be home.