Thomas Dunne once occupied the highest position a Catholic could hold in British-controlled Ireland: Chief of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. That exalted office is a far cry from the barren room where he resides in The Steward of Christendom, in an Irish Heritage Theatre production at Plays & Players.
A great-grandfather—and Lear
Felled by old age, senility, and the changing politics of his now-independent country, Dunne has been relegated to the annals of history and consigned to live out his remaining days in a provincial psychiatric hospital, where his atrophied mind constantly blurs the line between then and now.
Author Sebastian Barry based the specifics of this 1995 play on his own great-grandfather, who held a similar position in the waning days of home rule. Yet it’s hard not to draw parallels between Dunne and Shakespeare’s King Lear—similarities that extend beyond the fact that each man has three daughters. Dunne, like Lear, finds himself a man outside of time, raging against a rapidly dying light. Both characters are forced to confront the fleeting nature of power and authority.
Consult your notes
Like his Shakespearean antecedent, Dunne also requires an actor of commanding presence who can suggest his former stature even at his most vanquished. Monroe Barrick doesn’t supply this quality. His performance is at its best in quiet, contained moments, where he projects the humanity beneath the once-fearsome man and communicates just how much Dunne has lost. Yet he lacks the authoritative nature needed to bridge the gap between the unreliable past and the depressing present.
The action shifts regularly from 1932, when Dunne is seventy-five years old, to 1922, when he’s in the final days of his command. The lack of variety in Barrick’s performance occasionally makes these leaps imperceptible. James Schlatter’s direction—awash in glacial pauses and extreme blackouts that stop the play in its tracks—further complicates matters. Even the most attentive viewers will likely need to avail themselves of the copious clarifying notes in the program, without which the play’s particulars would remain shrouded in mystery.
An air of defeat
Peggy Smith and John Cannon supply some welcome, characterful acting as the orderlies who care for Dunne in his dotage, and Donovan Lockett shows promise as Dolly, his youngest and best-loved daughter. Yet the intricacies of Dunne’s relationship to his children—his other two daughters are played by Stephanie Iozzia and Brittany Holdahl—remains largely unexplored, and the ghostly presence of a son killed in World War I (played by Lincoln Millard, who has a lovely singing voice) adds to the confusion.
So too does the mélange of competing accents that render a fair amount of dialogue impenetrable. Also lost in the mix: A sense of the walls closing in on Dunne, as he rots in his shabby little cell. The production’s spartan set—a bed, small table, and floating doorway—sits awkwardly in the large expanse of the Plays & Players stage, which swallows up some much-needed intimacy.
In general, the needs of Barry’s play are not ideally served. Like Thomas Dunne himself, the proceedings project an air of defeat.
What, When, Where
The Steward of Christendom. By Sebastian Barry. Directed by James Schlatter. Irish Heritage Theatre. Through March 15, 2020, at Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. Irishheritagetheatre.org.
Plays & Players Theater has a ramp entrance available for patrons who need it, but all restrooms are located on the venue’s basement level, which is accessible only by stairs.