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On Blueberry Hill

                                     David Ganly and Niall Buggy (back)                                                       Photos by Patrick Redmond


On Blueberry Hill


                      By Ron Cohen


On Blueberry Hill is a testament to the power of acting that’s both skilled and inspired. This Irish drama, in a production from Ireland’s award-winning Fishamble theater company, is basically two interlocking monologues, each of the two actors delivering them directly to the audience on a set that’s evocatively lit but is little more than a plain double-decker bunkbed in what is ostensibly a prison cell.


Granted that playwright Sebastian Barry has written an intriguing semi-gothic tale of violent acts, revenge, forgiveness and redemption, overflowing with piquant detail and infectious Irish lyricism. Still, it is up to the performers – Niall Buggy and David Ganly -- to make the outpouring of words come alive, and they do so majestically, performing with the precision that might be demanded of an intricate piece of chamber music, while at the same time exposing the layers of humanity that make up their characters.


Ganly plays PJ, a large-sized, seemingly thoughtful fellow, occupying the lower bunk and the first to speak. He reminisces affectingly about his rural childhood, raised by his widowed mother. “Everyone went to mass, everyone believed in God.”


Niall Buggy Fishamble


Situated on the upper bunk, Buggy plays Christy, an older and slighter, almost wiry fellow, with a playful, spikey attitude, who also recalls his youth, an impoverished growing up in Dublin. He relates how he traveled to England to make money working in the construction business, returned home to Ireland to meet his wife and raise a family. It was a good life -- “having my pints in Carneys in the evening, plenty of money and mates, enjoying the work on the buildings…It’s a special time when you’re young and your kids are small.”


These introductory monologs with their pungent observations on life and living draw you into the two men; you like them and care about them, and when circumstances draw them together in a horrendous bonding, it’s both chilling and breathtaking.


As Barry’s play grows darker, we learn how PJ joined a seminary, falling into a relationship that should not be with a fellow student named Peadar. “Did I not grievously love him, or did I resent that love, as being sinful, indeed prohibited by the state, public opprobrium, deepest shame, prison sentences?” The two take a jaunt to a rugged island. Paedar, a fellow of “blissful youthfulness,” stands on the edge of a cliff. And PJ, in a moment of blind motivation, pushes him to his death.


It’s then that the connection between PJ and Christy is made clear. Peadar was Christy’s son; the man is possessed by grief. “He was going to be the best priest that ever Ireland saw,” Christy mourns his son. “In fact in my opinion my son was a sort of saint,”


Christy has his bloody revenge, a crime that cuts to the quick of PJ, and, thanks to a malicious jailer, they wind up together in the cell we see them in. How they overcame their hatred, at first explosive, is detailed by the two men. It’s an exalted demonstration of the pliability of the human soul, eventually taking them to something like love, elevated and yet brought down-to-earth as they celebrate a moment of joy listening on a taped-up radio to a popular Irish disc jockey celebrate Fats Domino’s birthday by playing his rendition of “On Blueberry Hill.”


This is a stunning and eventful narrative, yet made totally credible by Barry’s writing and the arresting work of the two actors, beautifully balanced one against the other under the direction of Jim Culleton, Fishamble’s artistic director.


The lighting by Mark Galione helps to sharpen focus as the narrative moves back and forth between the two players ensconced on the spare but effective set design of Sabine Dargent, also responsible for the costumes.


There are times, it should be noted, when Buggy’s intensity takes his voice to such a low volume level you may have to strain to hear him, if you can hear him at all. Nevertheless, the magnetism of this esteemed actor keeps the audience rapt.


In fact, at the performance attended, the exceptional attentive stillness that both Ganly and Buggy engendered in their audience throughout the 100-minute-plus no-intermission playing time became a memorable part of the event as well.


Review posted January 2019

Off-Broadway play

Playing at 58E59 Theaters

59 East 59th Street


Playing until February 3