Does 21st-century Ireland really need another 1950s emigration play? If it’s written by Tom Murphy, the answer is an unexpected, emphatic “yes,” even if the play in question will have to wait for a production that realizes its dark, epic power. “The House” is an examination of the still-unresolved Irish obsessions with place and identity. Though the tropes it engages are familiar, Murphy’s ability to infuse them with dramatic interest remains unparalleled. Its only average world premiere production at the Abbey, however, is further evidence (after his woeful recent “Tempest”) that its director, Conall Morrison, may have temporarily exhausted his creative juices.
It seems unlikely, as well, that this is the play to give Murphy the widespread international recognition that has so long evaded him; its power comes largely from what is unspoken — including its contemporary resonances — and those unfamiliar with the culture and its codes would probably find it a well-told but overlong yarn and miss out on its profundities.
“The House” feels in many ways like a companion piece to Murphy’s first full-length play, “A Whistle in the Dark,” which premiered in London in 1961. Whereas the earlier play portrayed the brutal psychological consequences of emigration through its portrait of a family of Irish males forced by economic necessity to live in Coventry, “The House” displays a similar (though, this time , unrelated) grouping of young Irishmen temporarily back in their rural Irish home town for their annual summer holidays.
Our anti-hero is working-class Christy, who has long been fascinated by, and entangled with, the wealthy De Burca family and their grand house, where his dead mother used to work as a maid. There’s a sexual and romantic charge to Christy’s interactions with all of the De Burca women: the ailing, widowed mother; spinster eldest daughter Marie; unhappily married Louise, with whom Christy had a dalliance the previous summer; and dangerous Susanne, who, it’s implied, is working as a high-class prostitute in London.
Echoes of Chekhov come not only from the three-sisters setup but from the event around which the story spins: the De Burcas’ decision to sell their beloved home. For this family’s cherry orchard Francis O’Connor has provided a spectacularly beautiful set of birch-like trees whose leaves are represented by strands of green and yellow-tinted glass hanging from the flies. The order that’s passing is that of the Anglo-Irish Protestant aristocracy, to which it’s implied the De Burcas belong, and the “new” order is represented by Christy, who decides to buy the house for himself.
The metaphor at play here is that of English-Irish relations: the house is a stand-in for the whole country — the auctioneer sells it off as “a veritable little Ireland in itself” — and the subtext that gives the play its anger is Murphy’s clearly-held feeling that Christy, as a representative of the native Catholic Irish, is trying to buy something back that was rightfully his all along. What makes the play a tragedy is the fact that Christy only succeeds in owning the house by destroying at least one other life, as well as his own potential for satisfaction or happiness.
Both this play and its immediate predecessor “The Wake” (produced at the Abbey in 1997) find Murphy writing in a more straightforward narrative style than in his previous works, which is probably what provoked Morrison’s monumental, old-fashioned approach to the production. Action is divided between the De Burcas’ garden, the interior of the local pub, and the house of Christy’s solicitor friend Kerrigan. Each shift of locale requires a complete set change that, however efficiently handled by a large (and costumed!) crew, make an already long play plod unnecessarily.
The strongest part of Morrison’s staging are the beautifully choreographed (with fight director Richard Ryan) large-scale pub scenes, which perfectly capture the humor, bravado and tensions as the community tries to accommodate the annual influx of local-boy testosterone. Andrew Bennett, Don Wycherly and Gary Lydon provide excellent support as Christy’s contemporaries, and John Olohan is effectively loathsome as the smug pub owner Bunty.
It is in the pitching of the central performances that Morrison’s production falters most gravely. The character of Christy, as written, is full of mysteries and menace, but Patrick O’Kane plays him as so tightly wound, from the minute he walks onstage, that it’s nearly impossible to read the performance beyond his heightened twitchiness. Both Geraldine Plunkett as Mrs. De Burca and Ali White as Susanne also turn in mannered, overplayed performances; Jane Brennan and Deirdre Molloy are much subtler, and more successful, as the other two sisters (all the women look terrific in Joan O’Clery’s spot-on ’50s frocks), and Frank McCusker brings out the textures in the character of Kerrigan, which could in lesser hands have been a throwaway role.
The issue making headlines in Ireland these days is no longer emigration but immigration: An unprecedented influx of refugees and asylum seekers is bringing out a troublingly prevalent strain of racism among the Irish population. “The House” throws light on this crisis by focusing on still-unresolved national anxieties over land ownership: Many Irish fear any arrivals who might challenge their hold over what they’ve struggled so hard to call their own. Murphy succeeds here, as he has throughout his career, in dramatizing a national subtext that is as profound as it is unresolved.