In 1790s Ireland, Presbyterians fought for religious freedom and independence from repressive British rule, and the Episcopalian Protestants who controlled the country and perpetuated British domination sought to squash their rebellion and eliminate Catholic influence with wholesale slaughter and rape. This conflict is dramatized by Belfast-born playwright Gary Mitchell through the struggles of one family to survive. Mitchell’s intermittently moving script lacks fire in the early stretches and sometimes piles on the melodrama. Brad Price’s staging of key confrontations gives the show a cutting edge worthy of Furious Theater Company, a troupe dedicated to hard-hitting material.
This go-for-the-jugular quality is on full display in the opening scene, when two men, the uncertain William (Shawn Lee) and his bloodthirsty father, Samuel (Michael Jerome West), argue about executing a young Catholic woman, and Samuel pressures William into strangling her. The terrifying impact of this sequence lingers, then dissipates under lengthy backstory involving Robert (Robert Pescovitz), an irritated father who wants son David (Nick Cernoch) to focus on becoming an expert weaver.
David resists the idea, and his grandmother Anne (Jenifer Parker) warns Robert about pressing too hard and destroying the father-son relationship. David, it develops, has revolutionary ideas: He wants to join William in a battle against the Presbyterians, and particularly a group called the United Irishmen.
Mitchell’s story gains impetus when Robert’s rebellious daughter Ruth (Vonessa Martin) brings home Harry (a convincingly heroic Eric Pargac), the man she loves and a member of the opposing United Irishmen group her brother has gone to fight.
The central weakness of the drama is the character of Robert. Pescovitz is a superb actor, as he proved in the company’s previous “The God Botherers,” but overly expository writing holds him back. Most of his responses are reactive, mild and vaguely frustrated, lacking the passion that would make them spring to life.
War’s horror and blind, merciless allegiance to a cause are represented with chilling truth by West. A standup comedian for 17 years, the actor transforms himself completely into a ruthless, robotic figure, the kind of sanctimonious monster who murders without conscience and claims to “do it for God.”
Portraying Ruth, the defiant daughter who wants to escape to France or America with her lover, Martin has a dynamically direct quality that makes her perf vibrate with genuine feeling. More than anyone, she projects the madness and futility of war in a vividly directed final speech.
Parker’s Anne copes with excessive sideline commentary and rises above it, creating a woman of sanity and compassion. Anne is deeply affecting because she puts family before politics.
Cernoch and Lee, playing the sons of Robert and Samuel, are less fleshed out in the writing and make milder impressions, although Cernoch is convincingly agonized in his death scene, and William credibly demonstrates despair and confusion when he must commit heinous acts to satisfy his father.
Production values maintain the high standard established by previous Furious offerings, notably Rachel Canning’s period-perfect linen costumes and Melissa Teoh’s set, featuring authentic fireplace, pewter mugs and wooden loom.