It’s Christmas Eve in Dublin, circa 1999. A string of fairy lights and slightly tattered wreaths do their best to leaven the atmosphere at the funeral parlor where John Plunkett (Jeffrey Bean) works. With its vintage 1970’s décor, perfectly executed by scenic designer Charlie Corcoran and properties designer Sven Henry Nelson, the office space is a veritable time capsule, a fitting metaphor for the state of suspended animation Plunkett inhabits. Toxic guilt and shame over his intractable alcoholism have paralyzed him, swallowing whole decades of his life.
The funeral parlor’s owner, Noel has taken Plunkett under his wing, betting on the power of trust to break the cycle of drunkenness and remorse. Noel is in hospital, so Plunkett has to hold down the fort. He brings in Noel’s nephew Mark (Cillian Hegarty) to help out with the funeral services. Mark is the exact opposite of Plunkett. Barely 20, he has yet to take his first false step, while Plunkett has travelled so far down that road, his pre-alcoholic youth is a mere speck on the horizon.
Wearing his loneliness like a cloak, Plunkett offers Mark tea and proceeds to splash nips of Jameson’s into his own mug, engaging in awkward conversation to delay Mark’s inevitable departure home. Plunkett, in a series of extraordinary monologues, reveals the story of his life – a subject never far from his mind -- in exhaustive detail. He unfurls a painful narrative of the humiliating price of alcoholism, wallowing in his shame to an almost indecent degree.
Alas, Plunkett has not wholly abandoned the bottle - a foolish and dangerous proposition. It makes your skin crawl with anxiety as you watch him refill his mug with whiskey, one drop at a time. It’s almost too painful to bear. What am I saying – it is absolutely too painful to bear.
In Scene Two, the lights come up on a young woman we discover is Plunkett’s daughter Mary (Sarah Street), come to tell him news of her mother’s illness. It’s been 10 years since they last saw each other, and time has been alternately kind and brutal to memory. Street is excellent as Mary, finding nuance and quiet strength in a narrative that could easily lose its vigor as Mary’s desire for answers will inevitably run up against her father’s brick wall of excuses.
When Mark returns to the office the next day, we learn more about Plunkett’s emotional history, including a weird misogyny he has developed through an emotional alchemy which transforms unconditional love into toxic corruption. Women are just trying to ‘get you.’ As Plunkett says, “Easy love is dangerous.” You can feel Plunkett getting his claws into Mark, attempting to drag him down to his level of self-hatred and cynicism. As Mark, Cillian Hegarty has a sweet callowness that avoids being saccharine. He feels naïve, not simple. Hegarty offers hope that Mark will have the fortitude to resist Plunkett’s poisonous philosophy.
In the gargantuan role of John Plunkett, Jeffrey Bean gives a committed, emotional, very real performance of a man who has thrown his life away and doesn’t know what to do with himself. The burden of his guilt lies too heavily on his shoulders.
This Irish Repertory Theatre production of Dublin Carol pulls no emotional punches. It is beautifully written by Conor McPherson, but ultimately depressing. Just once I would love to see an Irish story where the sun shines on a bright future. Initially the play elicits a sense of Irish charm and the shadow of regret, but it quickly descends into a painful story of loneliness and loss, requiring great stamina on the part of both actors and audience.
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)
"First staged Off Broadway in 2003, Dublin Carol maintains its quietly powerful impact. Director Ciarán O’Reilly and his expert cast bring out the sadness, regret and hope that define these characters, as well as the simple eloquence of McPherson’s words."
Diane Snyder for Time Out New York