While the Irish Heritage Theatre's (IHT) mission proclaims devotion to classic Irish theater, the company is also willing to discover lesser-known plays, such as Brian Friel's Making History. It presented a fine rendition of Friel's Molly Sweeney last fall, and no doubt has his often-performed Dancing at Lughnasa and Philadelphia, Here I Come! on its short list. Making History, though, remains an overlooked gem, and we might not have another opportunity to see it for a long, long time.
History in the making
Unlike Irish audiences, we in the United States are less familiar with this moment in history. I thought a program note would come in handy, but IHT doesn’t even tell us the year — and that’s okay. We’re told Act I occurs before the 1601 Siege of Kinsale and Act II, after; the play provides the details. Friel’s focus is not on major historical events but on how the characters view themselves within them.
And what characters! Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, is Ireland’s would-be ruler — if the island’s tribes could only agree to follow one. Ethan Lipkin’s O’Neill makes a physically imposing chief, with the staunchness and stamina to bellow and rage and the brave romanticism to marry a Protestant, young Mabel Bagenal (Stephanie Iozzia), without telling his allies. “We must assess the political and religious implications of this new situation,” Peter Lombard (John Cannon), leader of Ireland’s Catholics, remarks dryly. He’s a fascinating cleric whose writings will later literally define history.
We see Mabel too briefly, but she profoundly affects O’Neill and Ireland’s history. “I’m only 50 miles away from home,” she observes. “But I feel very far away from everything I know.” Her presence complicates a difficult maneuver, as O’Neill enlists Spain’s help against England’s Queen Elizabeth I; her devotion and fortitude support, yet also test, O’Neill. “It’s not Spain’s war,” she tells him bluntly. “It’s your war.” Iozzia, and Friel, make her a strong, modern woman.
Also involved are Mabel’s distrustful sister Mary (Melissa Amilani); the mercurial Hugh O’Donnell, Earl of Tryconnell (Kevin Rodden); and Harry Hovedon, O’Neill’s private secretary (Bob Weick). Director Peggy Mecham inspires strong performances from all in talk-heavy roles, and quality from Teddy Mosoeanu’s solid set and Michelle Mercier’s period costumes. History’s bloody action occurs elsewhere. In Making History’s dark rooms, though, history is written.
A play for today
That’s why Making History holds up nearly 30 years after Friel (1929–2015) wrote it for the company he founded, Field Day. In the play’s final scene, years after O’Neill’s forced exile in Rome, he frets over history’s judgment, which Bishop Lombard is writing. “History is simply stories,” the priest notes. “How many heroes can one history accommodate?”
Making History includes much of what we expect in an Irish play — drinking, blarney, emotional extremes — but also questions our assumptions about history and how it continues to be written and rewritten. History isn’t a rock but an ocean, constantly changing shape, hiding and revealing details, impossible to keep still.