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WONDERFUL DONAL

Talk about great experiences: Donal McCann is back in Irish dramatist Sebastian Barry’s “The Steward of Christendom,” this time on the Royal Court mainstage, and the performance seems even more enveloping in a larger auditorium. (The same, alas, is not true of the play’s supporting cast – Tina Kellegher’s fine Annie very much excepted – several of whom more or less disappear into the streaked walls of Julian McGowan’s mostly bare set.)

But McCann remains a marvel. Listen to him rhapsodize about Wicklow lamb; savor the “smell of children that gets in among you”; or, in his closing monologue, extol “the mercy of fathers” with a purity to match his comparable finish to John Huston’s film of “The Dead.” What gives McCann such force is that his acting is so unforced: Barry’s play at its best is a lyric poem – a staged elegy, really – given over to an artist who makes every moment of it sing.

Happily, plans are afoot to widen the exposure of both play and performer beyond London and Dublin, to which it returns for 10 weeks at the Gate Theater in the spring. Shubert chairman Gerald Schoenfeld and producer Elizabeth McCann have both seen the play, and the Roundabout’s Todd Haimes has the script. McCann, for his part, is said to be keen to get back to New York following his ludicrously abbreviated Broadway run in Brian Friel’s “Wonderful Tennessee.”

“In terms of the life of the play, it’s still early days,” says Sonia Friedman, producer for Max Stafford-Clark’s company, Out of Joint, which is co-presenting the play at the Court. “We have a long journey ahead of us.”

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