A low-life, hardscrabble Dublin marriage receives a heartbreaking dissection in Irish writer Sebastian Barry’s tough-going but ultimately moving two-hander “The Pride of Parnell Street,” having its U.S. premiere at New Haven’s Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas.
After bows in London and Dublin last year, the perfectly pitched Fishamble Theater production — with its original cast, director and design team — is a promising candidate to tour other U.S. markets, despite the dense accents, under-class characters and void of the usual Irish wit and lucky charms. (One could also envision American productions mangling the delicacy and detail of the script, where subtly and nuance are sometimes all that separates the play from bathos.)
Beautifully directed by Jim Culleton and performed by a pair of actors who feel for their characters down to their souls, “Pride” is a sad and sorry tale of Joe (Karl Shiels) and Janet (Mary Murray) living on the dole in urban Dublin in the 1990s. They watch the seemingly positive changes in their once-divided and poor country pass them by as the new Ireland strides toward the dawning millennium and the European Union.
But there’s little to celebrate for this couple, who just lost a child in an accident and are now witnessing their neighborhood change into a culturally diverse thoroughfare where they feel like outsiders.
An inexplicable act of violence shatters the happy marriage and sends the two on their separate journeys: the self-possessed and strong-willed Janet to a new life elsewhere with her surviving two sons; the loving but tough bloke Joe to drugs, crime, prison and illness. Though they’re separated, the pull of their marriage stays with them.
“See, love between a man and a woman — it’s private,” says Janet. “It happens when you never do see it. In rooms.”
In this case, one of those rooms could be a confessional, with the characters presenting a series of back-and-forth monologues that further the narrative as well as the shadings of their characters’ past, present and future lives — examining their actions, interpreting their feelings and exploring their options. The intimacy of their soulful storytelling brings to both a sense of understanding, peace and redemption.
But many details (and words) are lost to American ears. Most frustrating is the lack of motivation or reasoning behind the violent act that unravels the marriage but is never resolved, only feebly suggested. Best known for his play “The Steward of Christendom,” Barry comes up short in that crucial detail. Still, the playwright manages to elegantly weave a sense of place and history into his twin tales without becoming didactic.
The focus here is not on metaphor but on marriage. Murray gives a performance of amazing grace. She’s fidgety at first, then turns resolute before finally achieving a kind of beautiful serenity. The powerful Shiels goes through hell and back as the caring loser who takes ownership of his actions and shows he still deeply loves his family. Such moments call for theatrical absolution.