For a new play to reach back more than a century in time to illustrate a particular historical moment, it must both legitimately capture the past and offer enough of a universal connection for a contemporary audience to grasp. A case in point is Brian Friel’s “The Home Place,” receiving its North American premiere at the Guthrie in a production that vividly paints Irish history while telling a compelling story with a sense of immediacy in the process.
The action takes place in County Donegal in 1878, on an estate owned by Christopher (Simon Jones), a middle-aged widower and member of the class of Anglo-Irish landlords who clung to their lands like so many colonial occupiers. Friel resists the temptation to paint Christopher as a rapacious exploiter, though, and in the early going, we see him bantering easily with domestics Margaret (Sarah Agnew) and Sally (Maggie Chestovich).
Frank Hallinan Flood’s extraordinary set design, combining a patch of forest with a truncated slab of manse, adroitly evokes elemental nature as well as the taming effects of civilization. Yet all is not well here, a fact established by Christopher’s roaming hands whenever he draws close to the lovely Margaret — in this world, power has a corrosive effect.
In due course we learn that Christopher had spent his morning at a memorial for a fellow Anglo-Irish landlord stoned to death by a local who’s still at large. Whatever tension this evokes is hardly slaked by the presence of Chiristopher’s cousin Richard (Richard S. Iglewski), a doctor on a research trip to measure the physical characteristics of the locals in service to his theories of racial determination.
When Richard starts measuring the locals, one of them a widow who pleads that her family is starving, Jones plays Christopher as a man aware of the horrible contradictions before him but constitutionally incapable of making things right. And with the arrival of the surly Con (Matthew Amendt), the threat of violent restitution hangs in the air.
Director Joe Dowling has had a long association with Friel, and that familiarity is amply evident in this production. Jones and Agnew grab attention with subtle yet stark performances, and there’s a sense here that every nuance of Friel’s text is attacked with confidence and vigor.
This is a relatively large-scale production, yet one that fills the room with intimacy and an aching sense of impossibility (echoes of occupation and empire grow thick). Christopher is fairly broken by the end, a man in an insoluble position, with history placing him on the losing side of a conflict in which he never wished to engage. Friel paints him with sympathy, then destroys him. The end result is a fulfilled drama that thrills with intelligence while weighing down the heart with the too-real burdens of the world — past and present.