by Ryan Leeds
After a brief re-location to Union Square, The Irish Repertory Theatre has returned to a newly refurbished home in Chelsea that is every bit as intimate, but much more modern than its original dwelling. It seems perfectly fitting then to christen the space with a small but truly mighty work, Quietly, by playwright Owen McCafferty.
Quietly has been making loud ripples throughout the theatrical world since it premiered at Ireland’s National Theater, The Abbey. They have now joined forces with the Public Theater to bring this important show across the pond, where it is making its New York City debut.
McCafferty’s play takes place in a cozy, local Northern Ireland bar, managed by Robert (Robert Zawadki), a Polish immigrant who is glued to the television for a European football game. His regular customer, Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane) arrives to half-heartedly watch the game.
Jimmy’s not particularly a sports fanatic, but he lives around the corner and wants to pass the time. It’s an understandable hobby given his inclination to irritability and anger. Jimmy claims that “we don’t know what kind of life he has led”, but it is clear from his bitter demeanor that it has not been an easy one. As the 75-minute pieces progresses, it becomes painfully clear that his life has been wracked with resentment and emotions that this “tough as nails” man cannot even process.
On this particular evening, another man, Ian (Declan Conlon) visits the pub. Thus begins a dialogue that has profound implications and consequences. Years before, in 1974, the pair were involved in a nearly unspeakable incident that shattered both of their lives. Now 52, the two men recall what happened they were both 16 and Ian was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, an extremist group that tried to defeat Irish Republicanism. Jimmy was not a member and did not see eye to eye with their politics.
It’s useful to know a bit about the political conflicts in Ireland in the 70s, but not essential. The same scenario could easily take place between an Israeli and a Palestinian, an Iraqi or Syrian, or even—in this midst of our presidential race—a Republican and Democrat.
McCafferty’s writing is completely natural, but even with a brief 75-minute running time, it takes a while to pick up steam. From the onset, it is easy to tell that a storm is brewing, but some of the exchanges could either be tightened or omitted. I also found myself occasionally straining to decipher what was being said, perhaps due to a lack of projection. However it was not often enough to miss any crucial plot points.
Quietly takes us to a place where (I audaciously suggest) every politician needs to go. McCafferty’s piece is not about proving who is wrong or right. It is entirely about understanding and forgiveness—or at least arriving at a place where resentment is not all consuming. It’s also about the realization that people can, and often do, change from the time they are adolescents. Given the endless stream of noise, violence, finger pointing and self-pitying that our leaders (and even the media) create, it is a much overdue lesson for far too many.
Director Jimmy Fay has assembled a stellar cast. O’Kane is a mighty force who can kill with the slightest icy gaze. Conlon is less austere and more reserved but equally as forceful as a man who is just trying to do the right thing and rid his guilt. Zawadki’s laid back demeanor offers a pleasant contrast to his tense counterparts.
Offering a testament to the power of grace, Quietly is the type of theater that will stick with you long after the curtain falls. It will cause careful reassessment of petty grudges you might continue to hold. In spite of our grave human errors and misjudgments, forgiveness is a potent cure.
Irish Repertory Theater
132 W. 22nd St. (between 6th and 7th)
Through September 25th
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.