Lovers, two one-acts from Ireland’s Brian Friel, provides a showcase for a local acting family
There are families, and then there are dynasties. Asked to name an acting family linked to Central New York, most people would cite the Baldwins, Alec, William, Daniel and Stephen. To embrace both genders and more than one generation, you have to look elsewhere, to the Barbours. Bestknown is paterfamilias Michael Barbour, an Equity card-carrying member of the Le Moyne College drama faculty who has appeared widely with companies in the area, including Syracuse Stage. His household, we can see, verily teems with talent. Thus the new production of Brian Friel’s Lovers at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St., acknowledges assistance from Le Moyne College but is really presented by the Barbour family.
Lovers is an early set of two one-act plays (1967) by Friel, generally thought to be Ireland’s greatest living playwright and one of five or six of the most admired living Englishlanguage playwrights. The titles of the two one-acts seem paradoxical, given their themes. “Winners,” originally written for radio, deals with a tragic day in the lives of two teenagers studying for final exams, while “Losers” is a riotous comedy about the thwarted courtship of a middle-aged bachelor and spinster. Both have been performed separately, but they make more sense juxtaposed with a repertory company, some players appearing in both. Both deal with personal love in conflict with the institutions of family, marriage and religion.
Joe (Alec Barbour) and Mag (Megan Dobbertin) have withdrawn on a warm June day to the hill of Ardnageeha, near a large lake but above the town of Ballymore, in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. Ballymore (big town), based on Omagh, where Friel once lived, is a departure from the village of Ballybeg (small town), in County Donegal, where most Friel plays are set. Joe and Mag both wear school uniforms although both have been expelled because of Mag’s pregnancy. Although not in classes, both have been allowed to study for graduation, the “leaving certificates.” The exams are compelling matter for Joe because the couple is to be married soon, before the pregnancy shows, and Joe is to become the head of a household.
All teenage lovers invite comparison with Romeo and Juliet, and, sure enough, the differences initially outshine anything that draws them together. First there’s the social divide. Joe’s father is chronically unemployed and his mother is a charwoman, while Mag’s father is a dentist. Much greater are the seeming personal differences. Mag is a flibbertigibbet chatterbox, while Joe is dour and focused. In the short run this means that Mag provides much more fun, and Megan Dobbertin runs with her acting assignment. She’s wonderfully charming just musing about trivia, allowing us to assume that her pregnancy came about from her powers of seduction. Mag also shouts aloud how much she loves Joe, even with his nose in his book. He could never have resisted.
On closer inspection, however, we notice how often both their conversations touch on the question of death. In a tone that sounds like choosing what color blouse to wear, she ponders whether a coronary would be preferable to one from cancer or sclerosis. Both play a verbal game of Lord High Executioner, joking about which human annoyances they would gladly wipe out.
In its origins in broadcast, “Winners” comes with two narrators, a man (Michael Barbour) and a woman (Susan Barbour) who sit downstage at the left and right. Director Michael Barbour prudently keeps the lights off them during the action, just as we would not “see” them on the radio. Their lighted presence turns them into a kind of chorus, giving us both the back stories and news accounts of what tragedies must follow. It’s a chancy device, not unlike the one at the end of Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa or Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The meaning of value of everything we see and hear is transformed when set against the characters’ imminent mortality. Friel, a high school teacher in an earlier life, wants us to see the lives of the young people more deeply, as lovers, like those youngsters in Verona.
A scrutiny of a different kind bedevils Andy and Hanna in “Losers.” Andy Tracey (Michael Barbour) is the play’s own narrator as he tries unsuccessfully to court comely spinster Hanna Wilson (Susan Barbour). As Andy and Hanna hold hands, and more, on the living room sofa, Hanna’s bed-ridden mother (Caroline Fitzgerald) listens in a bedroom above and rings a cautionary bell when she can’t hear the buzz of conversation. Andy the narrator advises, “That’s the way it is with these pious old women: They’ve got wild, dirty imaginations.”
Only she’s not just imagining. As in “Winners,” the female is the more sexually assertive. As Andy lies back on the sofa, lusty Hanna takes a flying leap and lands on top of his writhing body. For a cover the couple has taken to reciting Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” While the couple struggle with unexpressed passion, the restraint of Gray’s 18th-century diction becomes more and more absurd until Friel ups the ante. When Hanna can’t remember the next line of the “Elegy,” she spouts anything that comes into her head, like the prices of groceries.
Further humiliations await. Together with a neighborhood biddy, Cissy Cassidy (Bobbie Earle), Mrs. Wilson demands that Hanna and Andy kneel at her bedside to recite the rosary in evening devotions to St. Philomena, whose foreboding statue sits on a bedside table with a vigil light candle before it. “St. Philomena?” the reader asks. There is no such person. In the 1960s the Vatican struck the name Philomena from the calendar of saints, acknowledging that there was no evidence she had ever existed. When this news arrives in the Wilson household, Andy takes his cue for personal rebellion and liberation from the matriarchy.
Allowing for the sparkle Megan Dobbertin spreads in her characterization of Mag in “Winners,” Lovers as a whole is a feast for the entire Barbour family. Alec has in many ways the hardest task, in turning the stiff-necked Joe into a character who accepts Mag’s love and is enlarged by it. Susan Barbour, least seen previously of the trio, turns out to be a hilarious comedienne. But it is impish, roguish Michael Barbour who wins the highest score, incidentally proving that it is not necessarily a mistake to direct one’s self in comedy. Caroline Fitzgerald and Bobbie Earle, longtime emblems of quality in community theater, can do no wrong.
On the touchy matter of accents, in which everyone is a second-guesser, all players have been coached in a kind of generic, educatedclass Irishness, without caricature or class and regional differences.
While movies remain a heavy industry, live theater can deliver laughter and poignancy when it’s only a mom-and-pop operation. That also goes when the show is run by mom, pop and the kids.
This production runs through Sunday, Feb. 6. See Times Table for information.