By Joseph Hurley
PEACEFIRE, written and performed by Macdara Mac Uibh Aille. At Arlene Grocery, 95 Stanton St., NYC. Through March 11.
At 18, Colin McNally, the intelligent, doomed hero of “Peacefire,” is a little over a decade younger than the gifted, baby-faced writer and actor, Macdara Mac Uibh Aiille, who created him and plays him so movingly and so unstintingly four nights a week at Arlene Grocery on Stanton Street.
The 80-minute monologue is yet another of the one-actor plays that appear to have obsessed the rising generation of young Irish writers, names such as Mark O’Rowe, Enda Walsh, and, of course, Conor McPherson, who, by now, is approaching the position of the solo genre’s founding father.
Standing behind this relatively recent Irish outpouring, of course, are the ghosts of great soloists of the past — Ruth Draper, Emlyn Williams and Dublin’s Michael MacLiammoir, among splendid others.
The wistfully drifting McNally, child of a father shot dead through a window of the family’s modest house in Craigavon, Co. Armagh, and a mother rendered mentally unstable by the horrific event, is a borderline delinquent, something of a follower of the bigger, tougher boys in the tortured streets of Northern Ireland.
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Set in and around 1994, the period of the first IRA cease-fire, the notorious housing block in which “Peacefire” takes place had been a boiling cauldron of relentless human suffering for some 20 years, an area that the media had dubbed “the murder triangle.”
The day-to-day conversations of Craigavon included discussions of knee-capping, of whether it would be better to be shot by an “enforcer” wielding one of a variety of weapons, a 25-, a 36-, a 45-, or perhaps a 9-millimeter piece. The worst, according to local legend, was the shotgun, because of the more generalized nature of the damage it was capable of inflicting.
Among Colin’s “friends” are Spud Murphy, the dangerous Jimbo, who lures him into serial car thefts, and Sean “Pots” McGuire, who earned his nickname because of his use of an inverted saucepan instead of a more conventional helmet during the rougher forms of streetplay.
The automobiles Jimbo and Colin and the others boosted almost always ended up being torched. On one remembered occasion, no fewer than 17 vehicles were burned, including one sedan set alight at the specific request of the owner, who was interested in collecting the insurance money.
“Peacefire” is loaded with specific and accurately observed detail, like Colin’s memories of the restaurant worker who was fond of removing her false teeth and polishing them on her apron before reinserting them in her mouth.
The boy’s mother, frequently in need of what he calls “her nerve tablets,” comes upon him eating a sandwich and doesn’t get the joke when he describes their kitchen as the place where he’d been “born, bred and battered.”
Most of the text, however, is studded with realistic detail, much of it searing, like the description of being shot in the lower spine, a practice delivering a wound described in street parlance as a “50/50,” because the recipient has only a “50/50” chance of survival.
Equally unpleasant was the possibility, apparently often a reality at the times of the most intense civil strife, of being shot directly in the eyeball.
The mere fact that grim details like these ever became part of the ordinary common chat of neighbors and friends, the unremarkable verbal coinage of the streets, is coruscating evidence of the harshness and inhuman cruelty of hard-scrabble civilian existence during the Troubles, starting in 1969, a few years before the hero of “Peacefire” would have been born.
In the play, Colin McNally appeals to the church for sanctuary, only to be rebuffed by a cleric speaking emptily of “moral authority.”
Casually becoming an unthinking informer for the Royal Ulster Constabulary, McNally puts himself in a position where he is constantly “jumping for a thumping,” or “sliding for a hiding,” or “cruising for a bruising,” to quote the script, and finds himself in the position of being a marked man, or perhaps a “marked boy.”
Ultimately, McNally has little choice other than to go “over the water” and vanish, as he informs his frequently institutionalized mother.
“Peacefire” is performed before a well-executed triptych of religious images, with a crucifixion in the center flanked by a warrior kneeling on the left and a supplicant on the right. The appealing panels are the work of Finin Vallely, the younger brother of writer-performer Macdara Mac Uibh Aille.
Musical director Ivan Goff has collaborated with the playwright on a deftly employed soundscape that weds radio reports heard at the time with suitably evocative music and even with fragments of recorded dialogue with which “Colin” interacts with grace and ease, aided by DJ Eddie Fitzgerald.
“Peacefire” is, to quote the playwright’s subtitle, “a multimedia political rave,” but what it really is is an emotionally valid, richly evocative fragment of ordinary life in terrible times. As such, it is, beyond question, worth experiencing.