Review by Tulis McCall
(13 Oct 2010)
One of the main things you have to love about the Irish Repertory Theatre is that it doesn’t occur to them that they cannot fit the world on their stage. Thank God for that.
In this remarkable saga, the setting is listed as the Lower East Side, but the locations are: A Minstrel Theatre, Back Stage, The Theatre Alley, Street Scenes, Under a Lamppost, Outside McSorley's Ale House, and The New England Hotel. The date is 1863, and it’s the night when the draft riots are about to engulf the city. Things will get ugly. Heads will roll.
In the middle of this commotion this fine, fine cast brings to life a cornucopia of people - black, Irish, and otherwise. The otherwise includes Stephen Foster (Malcolm Gets) whose life is collapsing around him. The songs that once brought him notoriety – he was our first popular composer – were remnants of a country that no longer existed. We also meet an Irish actor, Jack Mulcahey (David Lansbury) who has befriended a black boy, Squirt (Christopher Borger) and is in love with a light skinned black woman Eliza (Amber Gray) who is his acting partner in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and believes they can have a future together in Canada. Smack in the center of this world live Euphemia Blanchard (Patrice Johnnson) who single handedly seems to keep the world revolving through sheer grit. Margaret O’Driscoll (Amanda Quaid), a maid from Ireland, has hopes of a relationship with Jimmy Dunne (John Orsini) who has hopes of his own being forced upon him by Waldo Capshaw (Graeme Malcolm).
It is a world of vitality and violence. It is a gunpowder keg ready to blow. And when the Conscription Act (the Draft) was enforced (unless you had the $300 to buy your way out of it) and the Irish were taking a hit in the numbers – everything fell apart. Hurt people hurt people, and on the night in question it was the Black people who were found to be in the cross hairs of the mobs who took over the streets. The Civil War had never been intended to last more than a few months, so two years in with no end in sight, people were frightened and angry.
This play is based on the book of the same name by Peter Quinn. Kelly Younger and the director Ciarán O'Reilly (who also gave us The Emperor Jones last season) have cherry-picked the exact right number of characters and stories to fill the stage to bursting. Charlie Corcoran has created a stage that literally revolves and reveals world within world. Serenaded most admirably by Mr. Gets’ simple and extraordinary singing, this play is positively glorious.
As always, however, it is directed with the majority of the audience having the best sight lines, and the few people left over on the audience left are more often than not excluded from or denied full access to the goings on. Especially in this play it would have taken so little to open the staging. It is a mystery to me that no one recognizes this constant omission.
That being said, I am off to get a copy of Quinn’s The Banished Children of Eve, because two splendid hours is just not enough time for me to have with these characters and their stories.
Our only frontier now is history and the many stories that have been forgotten or denied us. Congratulations to these folk for resurrection an important chapter of our shared tale. Bravo. Next drink is on me.
"This potentially fascinating slice of history misses the mark."
David A. Rosenberg for Back Stage