by Samuel Leiter
The Irish Repertory Theatre is cozily in its element with Da, a lovingly realized revival of Hugh Leonard’s 1978 play about a son’s fraught relationship with his late dad (“da” in the play’s vernacular). The original—which began Off Broadway and moved to Broadway, where it copped the Tony, the Drama Desk, and the Drama Critics’ Circle awards for best play—reveled in a Tony-winning performance by the late Barnard Hughes as the delightfully cantankerous gardener of the title (a.k.a. Nick Tynan).
Call it the luck of the Irish, but the company is fortunate to have the effervescent Paul O’Brien in the role, bringing to it all the charm, obtuseness, ignorance, pride, conviviality, and vitality it requires. And, under Charlotte Moore’s vibrant direction, the rest of the authentic-sounding ensemble, especially Ciaràn O’Reilly as Charlie (Brian Murray in the original), Fiana Toibin as Mother (a.k.a. Maggie Tynan), and Sean Gormley as Mr. Drumm, provide superlative support.
Leonard’s nostalgia-laden, autobiographical tale of Charlie, a successful London playwright, who returns in 1968 to his parents’ home to attend Da’s funeral and clean up the old man’s affairs, is performed on a naturalistically detailed set, which cleverly crams a working-class family’s Dublin suburb home onto the tiny confines of the DR2’s stage, with just enough space for exterior scenes. As Charlie rummages through some paperwork, Da himself appears, as if alive. The next two hours concern the illegitimately-born Charlie’s attempts to come to terms with his memories of and feelings toward his adoptive father.
Despite the shame and anger often stirred in the scholarly young Charlie by Da’s uninformed, narrow-minded behavior (hating Britain, he favored the Germans when World War II began), he comes to appreciate the old man’s life-affirming existence. Charlie also realizes that, regardless of the efforts he made, all of them stubbornly rebuffed, nothing he could have done to help Da would ever have been able to repay him for his love, but that Da henceforth will always be with him.
Using flashbacks, the play moves back and forth in time between 1968 and Charlie’s youth, with young Charlie played by the fine Adam Petherbridge, although the older Charlie enacts himself as a six-year-old. Scenes from the past, involving Charlie’s boyhood pal Oliver (John Keating, with his welcome eccentricities); Mary Tate (Nicola Murphy, spot-on), a pretty girl with a naughty reputation suggested by her being called the Yellow Peril, with whom the desperate Charlie is about to have his first sexual encounter when Da suddenly comes along; Mr. Drumm, the cynical older man who offers young Charlie not only his first job—one he held for fourteen years—but, as a secondary father figure, the kind of honest if painful advice absent from the young man’s home life; Charlie’s sharp-tongued, demanding mother, who really rules the roost; and Mrs. Prynne (Kristin Griffith, impeccable), the stingy upper-class employer who, despite his over half a century of loyal service, rewards the too complacent Da with a measly pension and a bizarre memento from the San Francisco earthquake.
Leonard’s play, like those of so many great Irish dramatists, overflows with richly colorful, character-defining, rhythmically musical language; when well spoken, as by these actors, you hear a symphony of brogues. Despite the possibility of seeming queasily whimsical, this complexly structured play, in which a living man interacts with ghosts and his own younger self, remains consistently believable. James Morgan’s set, Michael Gottlieb’s lighting, Linda Fisher’s costumes, and Zach Williamson’s sound offer excellent assistance. Da represents the Irish Rep at its shaggin’ best.
Irish Repertory Theatre
101 E. 15th Street
Through March 8
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).