Review by Marilyn Lester
From the outset, John McDermott’s bifurcated set is a tipoff. A gritty, grey area of brick wall and barbed wire, juxtaposed with a Rectory, embody the profane and the proper –the refuge of religion in contrast to the unrelentingly mundane.
“The Belle of Belfast” is set in 1985, at the height of “The Troubles.” The play is tight, intelligently placing its core themes – aspects of love, disaffection, loneliness, bigotry – in the framework of a war zone, where all bets are off and death may be around the next corner. American playwright Nate Rufus Edelman rates kudos for an impressive grasp of the complex political and religious narrative of the Irish.
Father Ben Reilly, a 35-year-old Catholic priest (the earnest and sensitive Hamish Allan-Headley) patiently hears the confession of the dotty Emma Malloy, a needy tippler and gossip. Father Ben handles her with near saintly patience and kindliness. Patricia Connolly gradually shows Emma to be more than a comic one-note, adding layers of pathos to this forlorn woman.
Enter Emma’s grand niece, Anne Malloy, already cynical and hardened at age 17. Kate Lydic is instantly believable as Anne, especially mastering the heavy Scots-influenced rhythm of the Belfast accent (a technical deficiency in some of the other characters). Anne’s “martyred” parents were the collateral damage of an IRA bombing. She’s being raised by the elder Malloy who hasn’t a clue about the needs of an orphaned teenaged girl. Anne is rudderless – and in love with Father Ben. She and her best friend, the highly insecure Ciara Murphy (the insightful Arielle Hoffman) desperately try to sort out their confusing lives. It’s hard enough navigating the teen years, let alone one set amidst the constant threat of violence. At least they have each other.
In the Rectory, Reilly’s senior, Father Dermott Behan, played on the edge of characterization by Billy Meleady, hates being a priest. He’s an alcoholic who hopes when he dies he’ll be released from the bondage of the cloth. One night, when a drunken Behan has been put to bed, Anne arrives at the Rectory door. Against the backdrop of a horrific storm, with explosive thundering and flashing lightning, Anne and Ben find solace in sexual relations.
Herein lies a flaw: Ben’s capitulation to the flesh is sudden. Likewise, further exploration is needed for the reveal that Ben became a priest not for the love of God, but to elevate his IRA-supporting parents (who’ve died in a plain old car crash) to a state of martyrdom. Compensation for these shortfalls comes via the acting ability of Lydic and Allan-Headley, and through the intelligent direction of Claudia Weill, who, with smart timing and excellent pacing, keeps the action moving and ultimately believable.
The hope of what might have been for Ben and Anne is ended with a bombing and the loss of those close to both. The troubled Ben is moved to confess his sins to Behan, both the carnal and the ideological. Behan explodes in fury; Reilly has not so much defiled the priesthood as revealed himself no patriot. “You have betrayed your country,” Behan roars. Figuratively blown apart, Ben and Anne leave Belfast; he for Galway and she for Dublin.
Three years on they meet up again at Emma’s funeral. They each profess to be happy, but the truth is achingly apparent. Their own “troubles” prevail; each is destined to bear the lonely political and religious weight of being Irish Catholic.
Costume design is by Terese Wadden, lighting design by Justin Townsend, sound design by Daniel Kluger, and projections by Jeff Larson. Christine Lemme is Production Stage Manager.
“The Belle of Belfast,” April 15 though June 7 (check web site for date and time) Running time: 85 minutes
The Irish Repertory Theatre at The DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th St., 212-727-2737, www.irishrep.org