By Marilyn Lester
It’s not often that the usually stellar Irish Repertory Theatre misses the mark on one of its productions, but with this mounting of Conor McPherson’s Dublin Carol, the lost opportunities for consequence are evident. There are extraordinary moments rendered within, but not enough to add up to a cohesive whole. The fault is not within the play itself, a lean monolog-based narrative, but with a faulty interpretation of it. Dublin Carol may be a spare play, but it’s certainly not a simple one. It’s deceptively tricky, requiring nuance to keep it afloat––and that’s principally what’s missing from this production.
McPherson, with his penchant for ghost stories (The Weir, Shining City, The Seafarer), uses Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as his inspiration for this tale of a man’s life gone wrong. McPherson’s Ebenezer Scrooge is the alcoholic, John Plunkett (Jeffrey Bean), a late-middle-aged mortician whose drunkenness has ruined himself and everyone around him. The action in Dublin Carol spans from early morning to late afternoon on Christmas Eve day, as Catholic Ireland, in religious and cultural tradition, awaits the birth of the Baby Jesus, the Redeemer, the hope of the world. Even the names of the three characters have Christ-story nomenclature: John, Mark and Mary.
The invocation of Plunkett’s ghosts begins with a burial and his return to the funeral home with his 20-year old assistant, Mark (Cillian Hegarty). Mark, having witnessed John beginning to unravel, comes back later that day, as agreed, and voices his own struggles, revealing he’s just painfully broken up with his girlfriend. Is this another Plunkett in the making, we wonder? In between, Mary (Sarah Street) Plunkett’s grown daughter, whom he hasn’t seen in ten years, arrives to tell him that her mother, his estranged wife, is dying. It’s in this exchange that the full force of Plunkett’s decent into his own private hell is fully revealed.
Playing the complexity of John Plunkett is quite a task for an actor. The unsparing shame, guilt, self-battling and contradictions ought to evoke some level of sympathy for this wreck of a human being. After all, who among us should cast the first stone? In Bean’s interpretation, while the quality of acting is outstanding, he fails to achieve a delicate balance of emotion; his portrayal of relentless, unrelieved self-loathing short-circuits the heartbreak we should feel for the broken Plunkett. Likewise, rare opportunities for comic relief were lost in a failure to appropriately understand and mine the wry Irish wit sprinkled throughout the piece. Where Hegarty was very present in the moment, making his Mark an excellent sounding board for Plunkett’s breakdown, Street’s one-note performance gave Bean little to work with.
Bean’s shining moment came at the very end of Dublin Carol. Having deconstructed and boxed the Christmas decorations liberally placed around the room in an achingly sad, humbug fit, Plunkett has second thoughts. He gathers himself together, tidies himself up and replaces it all in a silent acknowledgement of faith, faint as that might be. It’s a tender, beautiful moment of self-love, and in it Bean finally raises Plunkett out of pathos, giving him at last the air of hope and possibility we would wish for this poor, damaged soul.
Ciarán O’Reilly’s direction of Dublin Carol otherwise kept the pace swift and the action superbly naturalistic. Charlie Corcoran’s rangy, uninspired set failed to inform most aspects of the text, proving bland as well as counterproductive in helping to establish mood and tone. Other credits include costume design by Leon Dobkowski, lighting design by Michael Gottlieb, sound design M. Florian Staab and original incidental music by Ryan Rumery.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Dublin Carol by Conor McPherson plays Wednesday: 3pm & 8pm, Thursday: 7pm, Friday: 8pm, Saturday: 3pm & 8pm and Sunday: 3pm through November 10 Running Time is about 80 minutes without intermission. For tickets, visit www.irishrep.org