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Friel ponders a place called home

Rachel Pickup and Ed Malone in “The Home Place” at the Irish Rep.


By Orla O’Sullivan

It's easy to see why “The Home Place” has been extended by at least a month at the Irish Repertory Theatre. The play, with its eerily ambiguous ending, actually sent shivers down my spine.

It's hard to see why this last of Brian Friel’s more than 30 plays has not been professionally produced in the U.S. before, but for a run at the Guthrie Theater Minneapolis a decade ago, under Joe Dowling.

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With its central question, “What is a person’s rightful place in the world?” it could not be more relevant now, a time when there are more migrants than ever before (34,000 people displaced from their homes every day in 2015 on average, according the UN).

Friel looks more at the legitimacy of the possessor than the dispossessed, setting his play in the stately Donegal home of Anglo-Irish settler Christopher Gore (John Windsor-Cunningham).

He brings to the fore issues of ethnic stereotyping and racial purity—used by the powerful to legitimize their position and frequently invoked internationally in today’s heated political discourse. This through the visit of Christopher's cousin, Dr. Richard Gore (Christopher Randolph) to Ballybeg, set on Darwinian scientific inquiry. By measuring the craniums of the indigenous Irish, he hopes to crack the genetic code of the indigenes, demonstrating their inferior place in the natural order. (The Irish were frequently depicted as ape-like in Victorian newspapers, a time phrenology was popular.)

Gore struts in, calling the locals “specimens” to their faces, and covertly passing lewd remarks on Margaret (Rachel Pickup), the housekeeper with whom both father and son are in love.

This at a time when the movement for self-determination, Home Rule, is takes shape and just at the onset of the Land War.

No wonder the air crackles in that household in 1878. The play opens just after a local landlord has been killed. Christopher hears there’s “a list.” Margaret says there’s not, but we keep hearing what feels like an analogous warning: lock the henhouse, a falcon is circling.

Margaret is a pivotal character. Her place is ambiguous when the play opens. Is the colonizer colonized? Her name and (diminished) accent are Irish, yet she seems to be the Lord’s peer. Indeed, the visiting cousin dubs her the "chatelaine," or mistress of the castle. (Pickup plays this complex character with, at times, a fitting inscrutability worthy of the Mona Lisa.)

By the end of the play, Margaret and her boss, a liberal landlord who thought he could be different, have almost switched roles. She has reverted to feeling Irish, he to feeling English. He now longs for Kent, “the home place,” somewhere he earlier said he never felt at home, when shipped back for childhood summers.

Margaret reconnects to her roots when she heeds the ancestral call of the local choir. Her father, an alcoholic schoolmaster she has disowned (Robert Langdon Lloyd) is choirmaster. You might say he is driven to drink by indignity, like many indigenous people. (As Pickup noted in a recent radio interview, the victors write history, the oppressed write songs.)

There’s an autobiographical element to this 2005 work in that the Donegal native sang in the choir of his schoolmaster father.

This play sings with great direction in scenes such as a most awkward declaration of love or its physical equivalent when a drunk obliviously sends the china flying.

Also oblivious and obnoxious, yet funny for that is Cousin Richard, while Johnny Hopkins in the relatively minor role of Con Doherty brings a chilling menace to the part, reprising the type of role he played so effectively recently at The Rep in “The Pigeon in the Taj Mahal.”

My companion questioned what the whole play added up to given how it ends, but I’d say it’s well worth trying to figure that out.

“The Home Place” by Brian Friel, directed by Charlotte Moore, runs at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St. until Dec. 17.