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Roger Dominic Casey, Tom Holcomb. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)




By Deirdre Donovan


“I’m suddenly sick of Chopin — isn’t it strange?” asks Claire in the final scene of Brian Friel’s Aristocrats, but audiences visiting the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of his 1979 play may well hear Claire’s cri de coeur as less strange than a reflection of the changing times of this Irish family. After all, the Romantic waltzes of Chopin ultimately sound out of place in this elegiac drama about upper-crust Irish Catholics falling apart.


Deftly directed by Charlotte Moore, who also staged a revival of Aristocrats at the Irish Rep in 2009, this outing lands on its theatrical feet with the fine acting of its cast and its well-integrated production values.


The play is set in the summer in the mid-1970s at Ballybeg Hall, the home of District Justice O’Donnell, a decaying “big house” overlooking the fictional County Donegal community of Ballybeg. The family has gathered to celebrate the impending marriage of Claire to a substantially older widower but instead find themselves attending the funeral of their domineering paterfamilias.


The action unfolds on Charlie Corcoran’s spacious set, with the audience viewing a swath of Ballybeg Hall’s landscape and its interior. There’s a lawn downstage and a large outdoor porch swing at upstage left, with a study replete with a Victorian desk and old-fashioned phone at center stage. 


As the lights go up, one hears the opening bars of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B Minor fill the study and lawn. An American academic Tom Hoffnung (Roger Dominic Casey) is quietly copying the titles of books into his notebook as a local neighbor, Willie Diver (Shane McNaughton), stands on a chair, attaching a baby monitor to a door frame that will allow the family to hear their bed-ridden father’s demands. 


A beat later, Uncle George (Colin Lane) enters, the seventy-something year-old brother of the district justice, wearing a Panama hat and creased linen suit, with a large red handkerchief tucked into his breast pocket.  Although Tom and Willie both greet him, he remains silent, and after briefly gazing at them, walks out the door through which he entered.  Willie knowingly remarks to Tom:


“That’s it.  When he was only a young fella—drunk himself half crazy.  The all of a sudden packed it in.  And stopped speaking . . . They say about here that when he wasn’t going to be asking for a drink, he thought it wasn’t worth saying anything.  But brains—d’you see Mister George?—the smartest of the whole connection, they say.”


Shane McNaughton, Colin Lane, and Roger Dominic

Casey. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)


The theme of human lives being stifled courses through each scene of this play.  While Uncle George failed to measure up to his brother’s grand achievements, the same could be said for the other denizens of Ballybeg Hall.  The district judge’s youngest daughter Claire yearned to be a concert pianist, but that dream was crushed by her father who felt it was inappropriate for his offspring to lead the life of a peripatetic pianist.


Her two older sisters, also to the manor born, apparently have had their ambitions either drowned in drink or discouraged by their father: the London-based lush Alice (Sarah Street) seems content to live with her husband Eamon (Tim Ruddy), a local Ballybeg man who now works as a probation officer in England; the eldest sister Judith, who was politically involved in the Battle of the Bogside (the 1969 clash between Catholic nationalist residents of Derry’s  Bogside neighborhood and the Royal Ulster Constabulary) and had a child by a Dutch reporter that she put in an orphanage--and now is her father’s caretaker. 


The district justice’s only son, Casimir (Tom Holcomb), is an eccentric living in Germany, supposedly with his wife and children, and working as a sausage maker.  Indeed, the family has never met his German wife Helga and his children.  And whether or not they are a figment of Casimir’s imagination is never quite pinned down. No question, however, that Casimir has suffered emotional abuse from his father, who cruelly told him at the tender age of nine:


“Had you been born down there, you’d have become the village idiot. Fortunately, for you, you were born here and we can absorb you.”


To round out the family picture, one must remember the mother, who preferred suicide to living under her husband’s tyranny.  Indeed, she is just one of the many ghosts who haunt Ballybeg Hall.


The representation of an American in the character of professor Tom Hoffnung is key to this play. Hoffnung, in fact, as he attempts to chronicle the Irish Catholic aristocracy in the years following the Catholic Emancipation (the Catholic Relief Act of 1829 granted political and civil rights to Catholics) heavily relies on facts as the basis for his book-in-progress. In sharp contrast to this, Casimir embodies the Irish imagination, spinning yarns about his family’s history with grand personages, much in keeping with the ancient Irish tradition of oral history.


Casimir is fond of colorfully labeling his memories with inventive names like “the Bedtime Waltz” “McCormack Waltz” and so forth. However, when the professor eventually finds a glaring discrepancy in one of Casimir’s stories about the erstwhile visitors to Ballybeg Hall-- Yeats, Liszt, Chopin, Balzac, G. K. Chesterton, to mention a few—Casimir is suddenly at a loss for words. But as his brother-in-law Eamon wisely points out to Casimir, “There are certain things, certain truths, Casimir, that are beyond Tom’s kind of scrutiny.”



Meg Hennessy and Sarah Street. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)


In a flashpoint of 18 months, Friel penned Aristocrats (1979), Faith Healer (1979), and Translations (1980)All considered major works, Aristocrats is the most Chekhovian of this trio, resonating with the Russian writer’s Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.


That said, Aristocrats isn’t a flawless drama. Friel uses the professor to achieve his dramatic goals in the play and then has him vanish from its intense emotional final scenes. But then all great writers sometimes nod, and Friel’s play about an intergenerational dysfunctional family should be seen, not at its weakest link, but for the complex portrait it limns of the Irish in the 70s.


Those theatergoers who yearn to understand more deeply the evolving Irish identity and why Friel is referred to as the “Irish Chekhov,” Aristocrats is an excellent starting point.  See it before it’s history.



Through March 3.

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Running time:  2 hour; 15 minutes with one intermission.