By Samuel L. Leiter
Rebel in the Soul, a brisk, compact biodrama by musician/composer/writer Larry Kirwin, is set in Ireland a few years after World War II but its tale of Dr. Noel Browne’s failed efforts to establish a state-sponsored healthcare system couldn’t be timelier.
Crisply staged by Charlotte Moore, The Irish Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, it’s consistently gripping although it too often substitutes expository monologues for dramatic action. However, several scenes, especially a riveting discussion toward the end between Browne (Patrick Fitzgerald) and Dr. John Charles McQuaid (John Keating), the Archbishop of Dublin, make up for the playwright’s overdependence on direct address.
It’s in those long speeches that we learn, for example, that Noel Browne (1915-97) was the offspring of a poverty-stricken family, many of whom succumbed to tuberculosis. After his father died of TB, when Noel was seven, he fell under the wing of a prosperous foster family, eventually becoming a physician.
Browne joined the politically radical Clann na Poblachta party in 1948 and campaigned to eradicate TB—of which he, too, was a victim—from Ireland. This led to his becoming Health Minister at 32 when the party, under Sean McBride (Sean Gormley), briefly took power.
Following his successful efforts in fighting TB, Browne sought to reduce widespread infant mortality by creating a Mother and Child scheme, where children, up to the age of 16, could get free healthcare regardless of family income. He was blocked, though, by conservative interests, principally the Catholic Church, which found ethical and social reasons—including fears of contraception, abortion, and socialism—to oppose such a program.
The best parts of Rebel in the Soul are the scenes during which Browne seeks the support of McBride and argues his case with McQuaid. Both men are charismatic, gifted expositors of their political, social, and religious viewpoints; Kirwan gives them plenty of rhetorical fuel to fire their debates with the frustrated, impassioned, and equally articulate Browne. You can expect these arguments to offer, among other things, biting invective contrasting Irish theocracy with English atheism.
Also serving as a sounding board is Browne’s pretty wife, Phyllis (Sarah Street), with whom, in one scene, he dances to a pastiche period tune by Kirwan himself.
The production is in the Irish Rep’s tiny, downstairs venue, where John McDermott’s simple set, representing several locales, is little more than two desks on either side of the stage, and a chesterfield chair on wheels at center. There’s a projection screen at rear for Chris Kateff’s sometimes scratchy images of period events and architectural features.
Michael Gottlieb did the efficient lighting and Linda Fisher the period costumes. The latter look fine even from a first-row seat where you can see their weave and feel the whoosh of the archbishop’s robes swinging past.
Fitzgerald gives a colorful performance, hacking cough and all, as Browne although he sometimes seems almost manic in his intensity. Gormley’s McBride is every inch the smooth-talking, sharp-edged politician (he also plays a British physician), Keating makes the archbishop a craftily pompous debater, and Street is suitably persuasive as Mrs. Browne.
Theatregoers who normally use listening devices should have no trouble hearing these players, who speak their heavily broguish lines with as much vigor as if they were upstairs on the mainstage; given the room’s intimacy, though, it wouldn’t hurt for the men to lower the decibel level a bit and stress the realism of their intentions over the grandiosity of their rhetoric. Also, during the monologues, looking directly at specific audience members, instead of over their heads, might make the speeches more personal and less oratorical.
America’s fight for universal healthcare may not have Ireland’s Catholic Church as its principal opponent; it does, however, have a party in power that holds fairly similar views, even if not couched in specifically theocratic terms. Rebel in the Soul makes no overt attempt to conflate what happened in Ireland in 1951 with America in 2017. Audiences can do that for themselves.
Rebel in the Soul
Irish Repertory Theatre/W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYCThrough May 21
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).