(left to right) John Keating,
Maeve Higgins Photo: Carol Rosegg
by Deirdre Donovan
you think that the theme of siblings taking care of an aged parent has been
exhausted, think again. Internationally renowned writer Kevin Barry
has penned a new one-act play, Autumn Royal, that gives it a fresh slant. Helmed by Ciarán
O’Reilly (who’s also the co-artistic director of the Irish Repertory Theatre),
this dark comedy is well worth a look, especially if you are a Barry devotee.
in Cork city, the play brings before us May (Maeve Higgins) and Timothy (John
Keating), both middle-aged, who are taking care of their aged father suffering
from dementia. Unmarried and with non-existent social lives, the two
find themselves contemplating their options. Do they keep their
father at home and put their lives indefinitely on hold? Or place
him in one of the local nursing homes (May mockingly calls them “old people
farms”) and endure the scathing criticism of their neighbors?
thoughts creep in. But, as May bluntly tells Timmy: “I dunno if I
have the pillow-over-the-face job in me.” Tim similarly shrinks from
it. After all, smothering his father with a pillow might take as
long as a half hour. And what if he gets “sentimental” about his dad
when he’s offing him?
the two siblings, Tim is the dreamer. He fantasizes on relocating to
Australia, marrying a cute blonde wife, and having two kids with no
is more taciturn than Tim—and a killjoy. She listens to her
brother’s fantasies about Australia with a skeptical ear and tries to dampen
his enthusiasm by reminding him that he’s been a homebody since childhood and
likely won’t get any further than their local gas station.
characters in Autumn Royal have a bit of Beckett-like flavor to them. They yap
away, agonize about their pitiful lives, and discuss how they hopefully might
improve them. . . .
a monologue early on, May remembers the Sunday drives with her parents and Tim
to “godawful places” like Tipperary. But then that was before their
father accused their mother of infidelities--and she up and left them for parts
hardly a spoiler to share that the two eventually decide on placing their
father in a nursing home. After all, the play’s title is a reference
to the geriatric facility that they find listed in the Yellow Pages, amidst the
agglomeration of other places graced with saints’ names or poetic imagery
(“Whispering Groves,” “Winter Roses Retirement Village”).
acting is sturdy. Maeve Higgins, a stand-up comedienne who keeps
extending her range (she appeared in the 2019 film Extra
Ordinary), portrays May with the right
belligerent air. John Keating, a veteran actor at the Irish Rep,
acquits himself well as the dreamer Tim.
bleak set by Charles Corcoran, with a plain wooden table, two cane-back chairs,
and a disintegrating ceiling, is an ideal visual metaphor for May and Tim’s
off? In spite of its wit and noir-ish humor, the play lacks the
inevitable feel of Barry’s fiction. Barry is a master at the short
story and novel form, snagging a raft of prestigious awards, not to mention loyal
fans around the globe. A book review (January 2021) of his latest
collection of short stories “That Old Country Music” described his style as a
nervy mix of high poetry and low comedy that he applies with unceasing
brings much the same ingredients to Autumn
Royal. But the piece feels
slight, clocking in at 70 minutes sans intermission.
Royal, as Barry’s first stage work, might come up short. But it
tackles a theme that is timely and increasingly relevant as many seniors live
longer and their families must ponder if a geriatric facility is really the
best and most compassionate answer for the whole family.
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street.
information, visit www.irishrep.org or call 212-727-2737.
Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.