Recent Irish productions have ear for God

Theatre / By Orla O’Sullivan

Is it some sign of the times that of the small universe of Irish plays in April and May three concerned characters getting messages from God?

In addition to the autobiographical works of Johnny O’Callaghan and Ned Massey – two self-confessed lapsed Catholics, whose plays tell of lives directed by God — there was Colm Toibín’s “The Testament of Mary.”

Besides those three plays, an Irish film "Choosing Signs" premiered at the Golden Egg Film Festival in New York last weekend where it won best feature for its tale of a woman who lets her life be dictated by the flimsiest of “signs” from the Universe.

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The title of Massey’s musical play also makes direct reference to divine intervention in his life. In “Four Messages” Massey re-enacts his being directed to the legendary music producer John Hammond, who discovered Billy Holiday, amongst others. Unlike Dublin-born O’Callaghan, whose hit solo show, “Who’s Your Daddy?” tells of his unlikely adoption of a Ugandan child, Massey said he saw words as if in a “big, flashing neon sign,” whereas O’Callaghan heard voices.

“You could call it God, or your intuition,” O’Callaghan, now also a practicing therapist in Los Angeles, said in an interview. “We all hear stuff but it’s trusting it is the key.” And so he followed the voice that said “Go to Africa” when he had a chance encounter with an acquaintance bound for Africa, and the later one in an orphanage that said, “This is your son.”

Both authors said they felt like very unlikely candidates to hear from God. O'Callaghan, whose show ended an extended run on Sunday, was a nightclubbing bisexual and Massey an Irish-American who had developed an allergic reaction to the punitive God in whose shadow he was raised. (Massey was once so riddled with Catholic guilt he made up extra sins in confession “to make the guilt go away.”)

Yet, both allowed their lives to take a very unexpected course by heeding the messages received.

The Mother of God seems a very likely candidate to hear from God yet Mary, as portrayed in Toibín’s Broadway debut, is resolutely not getting the message.

“Spare me,” is the attitude actress Fiona Shaw conveyed towards Jesus’s unseen followers—the “collection of misfits” documenting her recollections for the Gospels. She feels very Irish, less like the Savior’s Mother and more like the mother of a teen on drugs or a CEO son who’s gotten too big for his britches.

Despite being nominated for three Tonys, including best play, “Testament” ended 13 days after its official opening. Having been expected to run until mid-July, it was closed on May 6, reportedly because of slow sales, rather than some protests by Catholic groups who deemed it blasphemous.

O’Callaghan said the messages continue after his Ugandan experience.

Massey, whose career got derailed after his auspicious start with Hammond detailed in “Four Messages,” jokingly agreed that he’s still waiting for the fifth message.