With “A Whistle in the Dark,” new actor-based Toronto ensemble the Company Theater has come up with a smashing debut production, thanks to a tough-minded play, a hard-edged director and a first-rate cast.
Tom Murphy was a 26-year-old actor at the Abbey Theater in 1961 when he wrote and proposed the play, which was rejected by the theater on the grounds that it didn’t truly represent Ireland. London’s Theater Royal, Stratford East, produced it to great acclaim; ironically, the drama deals with how poorly Irish immigrants fare when they move to England.
It centers on the Carney family — an overbearing father and five squabbling sons. Michael (Jonathan Goad), “the bright one,” has fled to Coventry in England, looking for a new life, but three of his brothers have moved in with him — to the horror of his British wife, Betty (Sarah Dodd) — subsisting on prostitution and petty graft.
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DaDa (Joseph Ziegler), their paterfamilias, shows up with the baby of the family, Des (Philip Riccio), in tow, demanding Michael take him in as well.
This action sets off a round-robin of hateful recriminations and revisited familial resentments. Exacerbating all of this is an offstage feud with another expat Irish family, the Mulryans.
The first act sets all of this up and the tension created by Murphy, director Jason Byrne and the company is almost unbearable. You know horrible things are about to happen, but you have no idea what form they’ll take.
The shattering second act provides the answer, with father and sons turning on each other to unleash violence both emotional and physical, leading to a tragic final curtain.
The play had its North American premiere in 1969 at the Long Wharf Theater, under the direction of Arvin Brown. It transferred later that year for a 100-perf run Off Broadway, with a cast headed by Stephen Elliott, Michael McGuire, Charles Cioffi and Roberta Maxwell.
Murphy’s reputation in Ireland has been strong ever since, with plays like “The Gigli Concert” and “The Blue Macushla” proving popular at the Abbey.
There have been numerous revivals of “A Whistle in the Dark” in England in recent years, which brought it to the attention of Company co-artistic directors Allan Hawco and Riccio.
After deciding to mount the play in Canada, they turned to Byrne, artistic director of Ireland’s edgy Loose Canon Theater, to helm the production; his work here is clear, strong and direct.
Some of the play’s dramaturgy creaks a bit with the years — the expository speeches, the sudden revelations — but the life of the characters is so compelling as to make that seem unimportant.
Ziegler gives an immense performance as DaDa, grandstanding his way through life to hide the emptiness within. Equally impressive in a different way is Stratford star Goad as the quietly withdrawn Michael, who ultimately is capable of the fiercest rage.
Hawco and Riccio, acquit themselves well as the most unhinged of the brothers, and excellent support is provided in the other roles by Dodd, David Jansen, Oliver Becker and Aaron Poole.
With a single set, a cast of eight and a text that’s unafraid to deal with issues of racism, cultural empowerment and family violence, “A Whistle in the Dark” deserves a second look as a likely candidate for revival on the regional circuit.