Whatever else happens on or Off Broadway between now and June, the season can at least be remembered for bringing two exemplary British productions — and two stunning performances — to the New York stage. The first was David Hare’s “Skylight” with Michael Gambon as its bedrock center. Now comes Sebastian Barry’s “The Steward of Christendom,” a very good play at times made to seem great by Donal McCann’s devastating lead performance.
The fifth in Barry’s cycle of plays about his Irish family, “Steward,” being staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by London’s Out of Joint theater company through Feb. 23, proved the most “worrying” of the cycle, the playwright says in program notes: Its central character, Thomas Dunne (based on Barry’s great-grandfather and played here by McCann), was the last superintendent of the hated Dublin Metropolitan Police. An Irish organization devoted to the British crown, the DMP found itself on the wrong side of history and its countrymen when Irish revolutionary Michael Collins rose to power in the early 1920s.
Ten years after the change in regime, Dunne is a reviled figure, a traitor. Yet as we meet him, a broken old man in filthy long johns confined to a barren room in a county mental asylum, Dunne has devolved into an object of pity and heartbreak. Barry’s compassionate imagining of an ancestor he never knew is among the most poignant onstage displays of humanity in recent memory.
Slowly rousing himself from sleep on a ratty iron cot (his cell’s — and the set’s — only piece of furniture aside from a spindly wooden table), Dunne babbles in baby-talk before rising to lucidity. At 75, the character seems less afflicted by the infirmities of age (McCann, a robust, burly actor, does not “play old”) than beaten down by a life of loss and remorse. His interactions now are mostly limited to visits from two ward attendants, one surly (Kieran Ahern) and one kindly (Maggie McCarthy).
But in his mind (and on the stage) Dunne re-enacts scenes from his past, mostly involving his three grown daughters as he and they come to grips with the collapsing of the order, both political and personal, to which he has devoted his life. Saddest of all, Dunne occasionally is visited by Willie (Carl Brennan) , his son killed in World War I. Appearing as a child in a soldier’s uniform, Willie resurrects Dunne’s deepest, most painful regrets: “I remember how stupid and silent I was with my son,” says Dunne, later lamenting to the ghost, “I would kill or I would do a great thing just to see you once more in the flesh.”
Saving judgment for others, Barry simply presents Dunne in defeat, a man who “could not hold back the ruin.” Dunne uses those words to describe the murder and chaos that ensued from political upheaval, but the same description could apply to his personal life. Having raised his children alone — his beloved wife died in childbirth — Dunne seems little more than an ineffectual bystander as his family, and his sanity, disintegrate. Willie is gone; his favorite daughter, Dolly (Aislin McGuckin), abandons Ireland for America; eldest Maud (Ali White) marries but slides into “the melancholy,” and Annie (Tina Kellegher), her back misshapen by polio, grows resentful at life and the burden of caring for a dotty old man. When Annie pays a real visit to Dunne near the play’s end, her anger is all too apparent.
But not entirely convincing. The play disappoints in its depiction of the daughters, each of whom comes off more as a single-trait type than a full character. Their extended scenes feel like padding in a 2-hour play.
Fortunately, director Max Stafford-Clark is perfectly in tune with the play’s shifting moods; present action seamlessly melds into flashback, Johanna Town’s attractive lighting design providing the telltale cues.
But mostly there’s McCann, never missing a step in bringing Barry’s lyrical, poetic monologues to life. The final memory offered by the character recalls a foreboding childhood incident that ends on a note of such grace it brought audible gasps from the audience at the reviewed performance. Earlier in the play , McCann as Dunne says, “I was the Steward of Christendom,” and surveying his miserable state adds, “Look at me.” We couldn’t stop if we tried.