Ryan Lanning (center) and the cast of ‘A Man of No Importance.'(Photo: Heather Mall)
By Becky Sarwate
These are turbulent sociopolitical times. Genuine slivers of hope, and proof of humanity’s basic commitment to goodness, sometimes feel too ephemeral for excitement. Against this backdrop of exhausted burn-out, it’s important to take measure of the eternal ways in which humans provide comfort for one another, as well as real gains in social tolerance that have inserted roots into Western soil over the last half-century.
Along comes Pride Film and Plays newest production, A Man of No Importance, to remind us that not long ago, members of the LGBTQ community were afflicted with a “love that dare not speak its name.” That well-worn phrase was more than a euphemism. Gay people in 1964 Dublin, Ireland, where the story takes place, could only be publicly seen and heard if they were successful at self-suppression. The terribly lonely character of Alfie Byrne, a middle-aged, unmarried bus conductor, gives voice to one of the many victims of 20th-century Irish-Catholicism’s conservative mores.
Based on the 1994 film of the same name starring Albert Finney, the musical adaptation premiered at Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse Theater in 2002. Led here by the wonderfully cerebral, understated Ryan Lanning, Alfie is a man stuck inside the closet of a flat he shares with his spinster sister, Lily (Sarah Beth Tanner). Committed to the idea that she cannot begin her own independent life until her brother is settled in his, Lily refuses to bear her self-appointed martyrdom quietly. Yet her well-meaning attempts to play cisgendered matchmaker for Alfie come from a place of ignorance and unfettered love, rather than conversion ideology, even as Lily and her sweetheart William Carney (Tommy Bullington) chafe at their perceived inability to set up a household of their own.
As the musical begins, Alfie’s internal life finds expression in his commitment to community theater. Leading a merry band of invested misfits in a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Alfie courts controversy — and a reckoning with his own soul — as he prepares his team for “Going Up” in the basement of St. Imelda’s church. The arrangements of the songs in each scene, such this one about the flurry of preparing for opening night, categorically respond to Alfie’s own internal, if invisible, mood swings. With music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics from Lynn Ahrens, A Man of No Importance’s score supports a small story, compelling for its ability to give voice to the people we fail to notice each day.
If the work is intentionally understated, that doesn’t prevent a dynamic and capable cast from pulling off big emotional drama, matched only by show-stopping song and dance. Staged inside the relatively small, 85-seat Broadway Theatre of the Pride Arts Center, the production feels large, owing to onstage and creative talent adept at realizing big visions in tight spaces.
Without exception, the ensemble cast hits at the right musical and dramatic notes with two standouts deserving a nod. Ms. Byrne shines as Lily, Alfie’s tough-talking only sibling, articulating her love, devotion and heartbreak for Alfie in beautiful songs like “Tell Me Why.” And Kevin O’Connell is effectively coy and sexy in a dual role, Breton Beret and Oscar Wilde. The first is a brash rent boy that Alfie encounters during a rare night out at the pub, while Mr. O’Connell’s Wilde is the inspiring apparition that pushes Alfie to embrace his own truth.
But it’s the lovely, relatable and satisfying performance of Mr. Lanning that carries the production. His Man of No Importance serves as a kind invitation to friends and family, a request that they reconsider their indoctrinated prejudices. “Love Who You Love” without the added burden of self-shame. That Alfie can do this, and credibly retain his own circle of acquaintance in 1967 Dublin after coming to terms with himself, is owing to the patient but persistent gifts of Mr. Lanning.
Pride Film and Plays’ latest offering is the first Chicago staging of A Man of No Importance in over a decade. It arrives at just the right time to remind audiences that everyday people have the power to make a difference.
A Man of No Importance
Pride Arts Center
4139 N Broadway, Chicago
Through November 17
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob, their cats, Wendy and Lisa and their dog, RuPaul. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.