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‘Pride of Parnell Street’ in AmblerBY: Robert Zaller 04.05.2011
Sebastian Barry is the finest Irish playwright of his generation, and in The Pride of Parnell Street he recreates the Dublin of the 1990s with the most economical of means: two characters, one set, and a single, 90-minute act. The act of violence that lies at its core is never shown, but its trauma reverberates throughout the text.
The Pride of Parnell Street. By Sebastian Barry; Harriet Power directed. Through April 17, 2011 at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, Pa. (215) 654-2000 or www.act2.org.
Scenes from a disintegrating marriageROBERT ZALLER
In Martin McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, recently dished up on Philadelphia stages as part of this year’s Irish theater festival, skulls are smashed, body parts severed and, in the latter play, 68 shots are fired. The violence is delivered with simple glee, and the effect is that of an overproduced Punch ’n Judy show. Audiences laughed, but I doubt whether Yeats, O’Casey and Beckett were amused.
Meanwhile, the most important Irish playwright of his generation, Sebastian Barry, finally got his innings in Ambler, where Harriet Power and the enterprising Act II Playhouse are presenting his moving and deeply human drama, The Pride of Parnell Street.
Violence is central to Barry’s play as well, but it’s recognized for what it is: a product of personal trauma and social dysfunction that leaves human wreckage in its wake.
Joe Brady (David Whalen) is, as his wife Janet (Kittson O’Neill) explains, a “midday man”— that is, a thief who breaks into parked cars. In the down-and-dirty Dublin of Parnell Street, this is a recognized profession, as it is in many another Third Worldish city, Philadelphia not excluded.
It’s not much of a living, but Joe and Janet get along, not dissatisfied with their lives except for the tragedy of a lost child, Billy, and richly content with each other. Janet’s a proud Dubliner, and she doesn’t see Parnell Street as Poverty Row, but a place as good as any other with its own code of honor.
Billy’s death— in a hit-and-run traffic accident, also not unusual in such settings— is a deep loss, but what is humiliating about it is that Joe lacks the money for a proper burial with a headstone, and so Billy winds up in the children’s wing of a pauper cemetery. Still, Joe keeps a strict boundary between the violence of the streets that is simply a part of male living and his behavior at home.
Sport and class warfare
This arrangement breaks down in the aftermath of Ireland’s World Cup defeat in 1990, when Joe in company with what appears to be half the local population goes home in a drunken fury and takes out the inarticulable frustrations of his whole existence on the handiest target.
Sport, as William James said, is the moral equivalent of war, but, as Marx might have observed, it’s also the sublimation of class warfare. This is certainly the case in the well-studied phenomenon of soccer “hooliganism,” in which the passionate bonding of fans with their clubs becomes a license for mayhem.
It’s the street violence that grabs the headlines, but the domestic abuse can be far more damaging. So it is when Joe assaults Janet, who staggers bloodied into the street to discover many of her neighbors in similar states.
Oscar Wilde said it
Janet can’t stop loving Joe, but she refuses to forgive him, and he goes steadily downhill from there through the familiar cycle of drugs, depravity, prison and finally terminal illness. Through it all he cherishes Janet, and, numbed to all else, realizes that his real punishment (as that other pretty good Irish playwright Wilde puts it) is to have killed the thing he loves.
There’s a reconciliation of sorts at the end, but though there’s some comfort in it for Joe, there’s no catharsis for the audience, which is left with the sense of two stunted lives whose one sweetness has been wasted.
Since the play begins after Joe and Janet have separated, they each tell their stories in alternating monologues, and even at the end they don’t address each other directly. Barry lets the story unfold in flashbacks and reminiscences, with the audience only gradually putting the pieces together.
Life without irony
Janet is as truthful as she knows how to be, and always candid. This wins us to her, even as we realize how much of her life has gone over her head— not for lack of native wit but because the solace of irony, which is simply class perspective, is so often denied to the poor.
Joe sees even less, and his defensiveness leads him into lies that fall away like so much chaff. His fatalistic dignity remains to the end, but his nakedness is a terrible thing to see.
Barry’s success lies in his ability to make what in lesser hands could be a sociological case history into a story that seems felt from the inside out. His characters’ speech, while true to the gritty and profane dialect of Dublin’s mean streets, nonetheless contains the strain of lyricism that Barry, more than any other Irish writer of his generation, seems to have inherited.
Rooted in real events
Kittson O’Neill and David Whalen are first-rate, and Whalen’s unfolding portrait of personality disintegration is one of the season’s best. Dirk Durossette’s simple, split-stage set captures the play’s spatial dimensions, while James Leitner’s lighting sensitively underscores them.
Director Harriet Power, who has worked with Barry closely, maintains both developmental continuity and dramatic intensity over a single 90-minute act without ever forcing the text.
Barry’s play is rooted in the actual events of the 1990 World Cup riots, and he is concerned to paint a portrait of lower-class Dublin in the late decades of the 20th Century— a Dublin shadowed by the violence of the Troubles no less than that of poverty. This Dublin, this Ireland, seemed to be disappearing at the turn of the millennium, with the Anglo-Irish peace accords and the rise of Celtic Tiger prosperity.
Barry need not have worried; the collapse of Irish banks and the speculative bubble built on them has crushed living standards and left the country one of Europe’s basket cases. But that’s someone else’s play. If Irish history has anything to teach us, it’s that it’s not likely to run out of material for tragedy any time soon.♦
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