From rupture to redemption
Sebastian Barry’s “The Pride of Parnell Street” is an unlikely love story that covers bittersweet, engrossing emotional terrain.
By Naila Francis
The characters may not be the most appealing to traditional theatergoers.
And the story, which explores the rupture of a marriage with gritty, unflinching starkness, demands more than a casual engagement from audiences, challenging them to open their hearts to these flawed, provincial souls.
Yet Harriet Power believes Sebastian Barry’s “The Pride of Parnell Street” may be the most beautiful Irish play that audiences will ever see.
The production, which opens tonight at the Act II Playhouse in Ambler, delves retrospectively into a once-happy marriage’s demise in 1990s’ Dublin. Joe and Janet Brady are the couple, separated for nine years, who look back on their union through a series of intertwining monologues, recalling the simple joys they once shared, their love for their native city and the circumstances that began to erode their comfort and closeness. Central to that breach is an uncharacteristic act of brutality that Joe commits against his wife on the night Ireland loses its bid for the World Cup in 1990.
But “The Pride of Parnell Street,” says Power, is not a play about domestic violence.
“It’s about how, as flawed and hardened people, we learn to love,” says the associate artistic director of Act II. “This play is about what we do in the aftermath of losing our temper. … It invites us to journey with the characters in terms of how we live with ourselves when we do something terrible. How do we forgive? How do we deal with our spouses’ motives and our motives when something like this happens? And, most importantly, how is redemption possible because the playwright makes it clear that, yes, it is possible.”
Power, who is directing the first American production of the play — Ireland’s Fishamble: The New Play Company staged it at festivals in New Haven, Conn., and New York City, in 2008 and 2009, respectively — notes that it is a bit of a departure from what audiences may have come to expect from the contemporary Irish canon, where titans of storytelling such as Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson have traversed a boozy, cynical terrain of raging darkness and bitter angst.
Barry, she says, is of a different ilk. Power, who is a professor of theater at Villanova University, met and befriended the playwright while he served as a visiting chair in Irish studies at the school in 2006. She directed the second-ever production of his play “Fred and Jane” for the theater department while he was there and spent hours in lengthy discussion with him. When he asked her to read the new play that he’d written before leaving Villanova, she got her first glimpse of “The Pride of Parnell Street” and knew she would one day direct it.
“He’s a writer I feel a tremendous soul-level kinship with in terms of what he does on the page. I feel humbled and wide-eyed in his emotional terrain,” says Power, citing his ability to not only capture our deepest, unspoken yearnings but to do so through strikingly nuanced characters cut from an everyday heroism. “His way of being in the world is very much this way. He’s so undefensively wide open to what we humans do as we’re going about trying to be happy.”
Joe and Janet may experience regret and sadness over their fate, especially as Joe, a petty thief, spirals into a life of greater crime, drug addiction and illness, but the irrevocable damage of the past never overshadows a love that proves enduring.
“It’s a generous, generous play,” says Kittson O’Neill, who is making her Act II debut in the role of Janet. “It’s a love story that unfolds in an entirely unexpected way. First, the audience learns that this marriage has ended. In a conventional story, where do you go from there? This doesn’t take you where you’d expect. It’s about pride and love and the way they can smash into each other and pull away and come back together … and it shows the beauty of something that we might not find beautiful right away.”
Working on the play has been deeply affecting for both O’Neill and co-star David Whalen, who previously appeared at Act II in “Inventing Van Gogh.”
“For me, playing Joe — I’m married, I love my wife, but it’s making me a better husband. With Joe, there’s this terrible act he commits nine years ago. It was just unconscionable. But what do we do to win someone back? With all the trials and tribulations he goes through in those nine years, he has one goal and that is to see (Janet) again, and to me, that’s beautiful,” says Whalen. “To love someone that deeply, whether that’s your kids, your mom, your parents, the one you said I do to for better or for worse — the strength that takes, it’s really a deep soulful devotion.”
O’Neill believes that the characters, even with their uneducated, working-class backgrounds and surface coarseness, have much to teach.
“If you met the Philly version of Joe and Janet, you would not want to know them. You would not strike up a conversation with them or sit next to them on the bus, but I love that this play invites you into their souls in a really beautiful way,” she says.
“What Janet has — and she’s by no means wealthy — is that she’s strong and she’s a survivor. She’s a powerful woman. She’s a brilliant philosopher about life. She’s a joyful person. She’s not bitter. … I think if we all had that outlook on life, we’d have a lot less debt and a lot more time.”
Their rough edges don’t keep the characters from expressing themselves with a kind of startling eloquence, the musicality of their vernacular a signature Barry trait.
“His ear for the way humans think and process is freakishly accurate. These characters are poetic,” says O’Neill. “The words in their mouths never sound forced. Sebastian understands a lack of education doesn’t translate into a lack of intelligence or a lack of ability to articulate what you see and feel about the world.”
Ultimately, “The Pride of Parnell Street” reinforces our collective humanity.
“Joe and Janet — they’re a husband and wife, they’re parents, they’re children of their parents and I think situated very deeply as a family and as citizens of the city they love. As different as they may seem to viewers, they’re just like we are,” says Power. “When you strip away the surface factors, the economic factors, love and joy is what we want. … They’re just better than most of us at baring their souls and finding absolutely beautiful, poetic language to do that.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer