Review: ‘Family Butchers’

Edna O'Brien's "Family Butchers" watches an Irish family self-destruct over the course of 24 hours, complete with a long-suffering ma on her way out, drunken braggart da not leaving soon enough and an authorial alter ego as our principal witness. As those ingredients suggest, this day's journey into night traverses awfully familiar terrain.

Edna O’Brien’s “Family Butchers” watches an Irish family self-destruct over the course of 24 hours (plus epilogue), complete with a long-suffering ma on her way out, drunken braggart da not leaving soon enough and an authorial alter ego as our principal witness. As those ingredients might suggest, this shorter day’s journey into night traverses awfully familiar terrain, falling short of its intended full tragic weight as a result. But this extensive overhaul of a play that premiered six years ago at London’s Almeida Theater as “Our Father” is rich in language, emotion and juicy entertainment value nonetheless.

Set in 1970, the action is triggered by a major wedding anniversary that brings all four grown O’Shea children — a fifth died, though that detail curiously leads nowhere — reluctantly back to the parents’ slowly crumbling West Ireland “country house,” where the fields lie fallow and the cattle have been sold off.

First to arrive is prodigal daughter Emer (Anne Francisco Worden), a London literary star whose racy fiction has made her something of a fallen woman to the faithful Catholics back home. (Just as O’Brien’s early “Country Girls” tomes, very mild now, sparked censorship and burnings in the 1960s.) Success has proved hollow, however, and her secret affair with a married man isn’t making things better.

Next is flamboyant Peg (Patricia Miller), whose robust cheer doesn’t hide for long the pinched finances and marital letdown of her Johannesburg life. Arriving from Dublin, yet many times more full of hot-air “worldliness,” is Teddy (Mark Phillips), a bourgeois social climber. He comprises an insufferably smug double threat with wifey Carmel (Laura Hope) — they’re like Nick and Honey as penned by Mike Leigh.

The one who didn’t get away is Helen (Joan Harris-Gelb), dutiful wife, mother and caretaker of the old homestead by virtue of living just down the road. Which, it turns out, is a burden she very much resents shouldering alone.

Nor do ma and pa make it an easy one. When Lil (Esther Mulligan) married Jamie (Robertson Dean) those many years ago, he was the dashing scion of a well-off family. But his fortune has long since been pissed away on drink, racing horses and a thousand doomed get-rich-quick schemes.

Yet Jamie’s vanity remains the stampeding elephant in the room: Not bad at crooning a ballad or three, he proclaims, “If I’d trained, I’d have surpassed Caruso” in one typical preening moment.

Flattened by decades of disappointment, Lil has become the kind of domestic martyr whose rosary beads, nagging and silent guilt trips are in constant rotation.

Cash-strapped Peg hopes to wring her long-promised dowry from the folks, while the shameless, tactless Mr. and Mrs. Teddy have fixer-upper designs on the farmhouse itself. What they don’t know is that the heavily mortgaged family property is about to be seized by the bank, da having spent every last penny and more. While ma prepares to cower in shame, he plans on arm-twisting the youngsters into a major handout or three.

Hopes all around will be dashed — and there’s no prize for guessing Jamie’s recently gained sobriety won’t last past intermission.

There are no real surprises in the familiar (if true enough) “types” on display here, or in the increasingly ugly confrontations between them. But in this rewrite (the playwright reportedly disliked the original London production), O’Brien’s fix on the comic, grotesque, fond and savage dynamics at play is sharp and always flavorful. The slightly old-fashioned but pleasurable work is a far cry from her “Triptych” of last year, a Magic hit (and subsequent Off Broadway miss) whose upmarket gorgons wrestling with infidelity bordered on unintentional camp.

Paul Whitworth’s first-rate production is astutely acted down the line, not least by Ian Scott McGregor as a cretinous local odd-jobber who pops up at inopportune times.

Kate Edmunds’ genteel/decrepit house interior leads the solid design contributions.

Family Butchers

Magic Theater Northside, San Francisco; 154 seats; $50 top


A Magic Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Edna O'Brien. Directed by Paul Whitworth. Choreography, Marybeth Cavanaugh.


Set, Kate Edmunds; costumes, Todd Roehrman; lighting, Kurt Landisman; sound, Norman Kern; props, Helena Nolan; fight direction, Ken Sonkin; production stage manager, Risa Aratyr. Opened Oct. 1, 2005. Reviewed Oct. 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.


Lil - Esther Mulligan Jamie - Robertson Dean Gurnet - Ian Scott McGregor Emer - Anne Francisco Worden Peg - Patricia Miller Carmel - Laura Hope Teddy - Mark Phillips Helen - Joan Harris-Gelb
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