Brian Friel (1929-2015) is sometimes referred to as the Irish Chekhov. The Irish Shakespeare may be more appropriate—just as the historical Bard is credited with “inventing the human” (to borrow Harold Bloom’s phrase), Friel almost singlehandedly created modern Irish identity onstage over the course of a career that spanned seven decades. Plays like Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Faith Healer, and Dancing at Lughnasa are virtually synonymous with contemporary Irish culture, both in the home country and in America.
Chekhov wrote five plays in his career; Shakespeare and Friel each wrote close to fifty. Yet all three men contributed works that could charitably be described as second-tier. Friel’s MAKING HISTORY is one such play. And although the Irish Heritage Theatre’s production treats this minor work with something akin to reverence, there is little that can enliven Friel’s thematically overstuffed but dramatically thin attempt at Irish revisionist history.
The nominal subject of MAKING HISTORY is Hugh O’Neill (1550-1616), an Irish chieftain whose fraught relationship with the English crown came to a head when he joined with Spain to rid his homeland of English rule. (Spoiler alert: Things don’t go so well). But Friel’s real concern is storytelling, exemplified primarily through the presence of Peter Lombard, Ireland’s primate and Hugh’s would-be biographer. Throughout the play—which is mostly concerned with O’Neill’s planned insurrection and his problematic third marriage to Mabel Bagenal, whose family is loyal to the crown—Friel uses Lombard as a mouthpiece for his ideas about history (a constructed narrative, not merely reportage), heroism (flawed heroes serve little purpose), and patriotism (countries need compelling stories to bolster narrative pride—whether or not they are true). Although the play was written nearly thirty years ago, most audience members will likely draw parallels to our current climate of alternative facts and political cults of personality, both of which are tales as old as time.
These points are most poetically enumerated in the play’s final scene, which takes place years after Hugh’s failed attempt to rout the English influence from Ireland—by then, he and Bishop Lombard are living in Rome, under the Pope’s protection. Unfortunately, the first three-quarters are given mostly to dull snatches of military planning, leading to Hugh’s crushing defeat in the coastal town of Kinsale. Friel only flirts with what should be the meat of his tale—chiefly, Hugh’s pragmatic approach to the English problem, and his complicated relationship with Mabel, whose perception is influenced by her possession as an English daughter who has forsaken her family to marry a man they call “the Northern Lucifer.” What we too often get are long stretches of banal dialogue, capped by revelations that spill out as the scenes fade to black.
Director Peggy Mecham husbands her company’s limited resources well, although the extra-long scene changes performed by mufti-clad stagehands only serve to take us further out of a play whose text already leaves the audience at a rather far remove. Teddy Mosoneanu’s bare-bones set does not exactly suggest the splendor of O’Neill’s estate in his fat Irish days, but the austerity works well for the final scene of Roman exile. Michelle Mercier’s costumes get the job done. I would love to praise the lighting designer—especially for the moody, portentous effects they created in the opening scene of act two, which is set in the field—but none is listed in the program.
The performances are more of a mixed bag. The most successful work comes from Bob Weick, who infuses the role of O’Neill’s loyal secretary with a quiet nobility. Melissa Amilani is similarly memorable in her brief scene as Mabel’s sister, who subtly implores Mabel to return home. Her disdain for the Gaelic customs Mabel reluctantly embraces is finely calibrated. John Cannon is steadfast in his conviction as Bishop Lombard, although some of his line readings seem tentative; Kevin Roddan is showy and sometimes incomprehensible as Hugh O’Donnell, a fellow chieftain who is gung-ho for war.
Ethan Lipkin’s O’Neill can be gregarious and funny, but there is little variation throughout his performance. I longed for more introspection in the final scene, when Hugh has been left all but broken by life. Similarly, Stephanie Iozzia fails to convince that Mabel is a quiet firebrand, a woman who would give up everything she knew in the world to follow the man she loves. The lack of a strong central relationship makes the evening seem even more hollow.
It is not difficult to understand why the Irish Heritage Theatre—whose stated mission is “to present and preserve the rich legacy of Irish theater that has been created both in Ireland and during the long history of the Irish in American theater”—would be drawn to a play that both considers a seminal moment in Irish history and acts as something of an artist’s statement for Irish storytelling. Unfortunately, Friel’s ideas are not as richly conveyed as they could be on both counts.
[Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia]; May 25-June 11, 2017; irishheritagetheatre.org.