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Playwright Sebastian Barry begins the poetic fever dream he calls The Steward of Christendom as if he’s beginning a life and must develop linguistic skills on the fly.
“Ma…maaaa…” mewls his central character as the lights come up on his bed at Studio Theater. The sound is pathetic, crying, needful. So is the “Da…daaaa…” that follows.
Shortly, these primitive syllables will give over to more complexly articulated thoughts about family, politics, and power, for the bald, milky-complexioned creature in the bed is not an infant. Thomas Dunne is, in fact, the much reviled, Catholic ex-police superintendent of Dublin who unswervingly did Protestant Britain’s bidding back before Irish sovereignty was declared in 1922. That’s when he turned control of the city over to Michael Collins and the Irish Republic, fully intending to retire to his family’s rural stomping grounds and live peacefully ever after with his three grown daughters.
It’s now a decade later, and Dunne—75 and still a bull of a man as played by Ted van Griethuysen—is a ward of the county home in Baltinglass. The parallels aren’t exact, but like Lear before him, this once-powerful man has found both the surrendering of authority and the fealty of daughters problematic. The orderly dominion he once ruled with an iron hand is now plagued by civil strife, while the girls on whom he planned to be dependent in his dotage have proved undependable. One ran off to America, another married, leaving Dunne’s fiefdom for a home of her own, and the third had him committed to the county home when his behavior became erratic enough that he couldn’t be left alone with grandchildren. Now, wandering—and wondering—through the detritus of his disordered mind, he’s trying to make sense of the oddly splintered present in which he finds himself.
It’s not easy. Though Dunne hasn’t lost his mind as entirely as the loons down the asylum hall, he does tend to misplace his memories on occasion. And when recollections do come flooding back to him—of the moist warmth of the straw from which he once gathered eggs for his mother, of his son’s piping rendition of “Ave Maria,” or of a raw recruit’s grateful smile on being welcomed into police ranks—they’re apt to be fractured enough not to be entirely reliable.
Those seemingly innocent, egg-gathering days, for instance, were also a time of childish pique that found young Thomas responding to discipline by torturing his mother’s prize hen. And that “Ave Maria” that haunts his memories was sung by a 6-year-old lad dressed in the British infantry uniform he wore some 14 years later when he was killed by German mortar-fire in World War I. Under such circumstances, can the recruit’s remembered gratitude really be trusted? Probably not.
So, to understand himself, Dunne keeps stumbling back—as does the playwright, as do we—to a sort of second infancy. He’s accepting when the asylum staff treats him like a child, chasing him around the room so he can be given sponge baths that will keep him from smelling “like a piece of old pork” and catering to his vanity when he asks that the black asylum suit for which he’s being measured be sewed with gold thread. “Will yellow do?” asks Mrs. O’Dea (Fidelma Murphy), as she figures out how to embroider a rough facsimile of a police chief’s gold braid into Dunne’s charity-case jacket. “Yes,” decides Dunne after a moment’s hesitation.
A less addled adult might worry that his dignity was being compromised, but Dunne can’t afford to be judgmental of others when he’s judging himself so harshly. He looks on with a kind of wonder as his daughters—flirty Dolly (Jennifer Selby Albright), earnest Maud (Elizabeth Pierotti), and generous, polio-stooped Annie (Holly Twyford)—pop into and out of his reveries, arguing and living lives that are furiously independent of his. “I have my own story of what happened,” he says defiantly, but in the chaos of his swirling memories, what he’s seeking isn’t justification for his past actions, but forgiveness.
The Steward of Christendom is based loosely on the life of the playwright’s great-grandfather; it was hailed at its London premiere three years ago as a vivid blend of historical and personal narratives. It is the fifth in a series of plays through which Barry has sought to weave the lost strands of one Irish family into a tapestry that reflects how that nation’s turmoil has affected the life of its ordinary citizens.
No doubt this theme carries more weight for audiences in the United Kingdom than for their counterparts here. What’s undeniably affecting, though—even in a production where accents range somewhat westward from the mid-Atlantic—is the playwright’s way with language. I can’t honestly say I was moved by either the politics or the personalities put before me at Studio, but I sure as hell was caught by the phrasing.
Barry seems constitutionally incapable of letting even the most casual thought be expressed in pedestrian terms. Does a small boy, for example, look around quizzically at his surroundings? Count on someone describing him as “trying to read the story of the day in the huge pages of the clouds.” And where another playwright might stop at describing a field-picked bouquet as having “just the hint of flowers,” for Barry, that’s barely a starting point. “That heather was born in the snow,” says Annie quietly. “It smells like God’s breath,” replies her father.
You don’t get language like that from David Mamet.
What you do get from Mamet is narrative forcefulness, which is one thing you won’t find in The Steward of Christendom. Joy Zinoman’s staging is as restless and as imaginative as any viewer might wish, but it can’t be said to infuse the evening’s ruminations and memories with any particular urgency. The director has gotten lovely performances all around. Van Griethuysen, a Shakespeare Theatre veteran, proves a commanding presence in the more intimate, modern circumstances in which he finds himself at Studio, whether stripped naked for a sponge bath or decked out in plume-topped police finery. And he’s surrounded by a cast that doesn’t easily cede audience attention to him—not just those three vibrant daughters, but also Michael Goodwin’s brusquely disapproving orderly, Murphy’s caring seamstress, and Patrick Clague’s self-possessed, angelically voiced, preadolescent WWI soldier.
Lending them able support are Helen Q. Huang’s rough-textured costumes and sound design by Gil Thompson that blends chirping crickets with a keening original score by the Celtic group MoonFire. Also effective is Russell Metheny’s spare setting—thick floor planking, a metal bed, and a few sticks of weathered wood furniture backed by scrims—which is effortlessly transformed from the chilly blue interior of Dunne’s present, to the warm open skies of his memories by the breathtaking shifts in Joseph Appelt’s exquisite lighting scheme. The production may dawdle as it plumbs the depths of its central character’s soul, but there’s nothing fainthearted or imprecise about the way it illuminates Barry’s imagistic writing. Take, as just one of many examples, the faint rosy glow that suffuses the auditorium as a character notes that an event is taking place “just as the need for candlelight fails.” Dawn has rarely come so sweetly to a stage.