Brian Friel’s achingly beautiful 1979 play about the disintegration of Ireland’s gentry, “Aristocrats,” is so Chekhovian, you keep expecting his distinguished family to put down the whiskey bottle and start swigging tea from a samovar. In the Irish Rep’s meticulous revival, helmer (and company a.d.) Charlotte Moore assembles a dream cast to play the members of this diminished clan, gathered here at the bedside of their dying patriarch to wring their hands over their proud lost heritage and to illustrate Friel’s belief in the healing power of storytelling to take a family, a village, a nation through troubled times.
Irish Rep designers are old hands at transforming the theater’s exceedingly awkward configuration into something intimate and involving. But set (James Morgan) and lighting (Brian Nason) designers outdo themselves here with a warm mise en scene of the library and garden of Ballybeg Hall, the grandest house in the village, on a golden day in high summer.
Once caught by the sunlit tree branches and vines painted along the side walls and support pillars, the eye is drawn into the deeper recesses of the library, where Tom Hoffnung (the consistently believable Rufus Collins), a respectful, if entirely too gullible biographer, is working on the family history. In lesser hands, this could be a corny device for getting the exposition out of the way. Under Friel’s subtle touch, it illustrates the eternal Irish conflict over whether to tell the truth when a lie is so much more interesting.
Tom gamely interviews everyone in sight, including Willie Diver (the stolid Sean Gormley), a helpful neighbor who remains doggedly devoted to the family, even as they look down the length of their proud noses at his plebian manners. He’s especially attached to the mainstay of the household, the competent and long-suffering Judith (Lynn Hawley), a Chekhovian character if ever there was one.
As more members of the family arrive from hither and yon, it becomes obvious all is not well in Ballybeg Hall. This jolly family get-together was ostensibly called to celebrate the youngest sister’s upcoming wedding. But with the querulous voice of the unseen father growing increasingly irrational as it is piped outside through a child-minding audio device, the gathering begins to look more like a deathbed reunion.
A technical master in the show-and-tell school of playwriting, Friel lets the four siblings and their admirers reveal themselves through actions, as well as talk.
Alice (an edgy Orlagh Cassidy), who has come up from London, unravels when she begins to drink. Her husband, Eamon, speaks with yearning (and, as Ciaran O’Reilly plays him, with the sour eloquence of a bitter man) of the family’s noble heritage, while berating current members for their failures. Claire (a pensive Laura Odeh), the sensitive youngest daughter, talks brightly of her upcoming wedding but spends most of her time inside the house, playing heartbreaking Chopin sonatas at the piano.
Fixated as they are on their own problems, the only character who always has a ready answer to Tom’s persistent questions is Casimir (John Keating), who claims to have a wife named Helga and a bunch of kids back home in Hamburg. With his nest-like hair, bird-like movements and oddly musical voice, Keating appears to have constructed and decorated the character like some fabulous and fragile piece of folk art. Thesp is no scene-stealer, but it’s hard to take your eyes off him.
Friel is a formidable storyteller, as he has shown in plays like “Dancing at Lughnasa” and “The Faith Healer.” So it’s no wonder that the vivid anecdotes (invariably involving Irish legends like Yeats and O’Casey) Casimir pulls from the family memory vault are mesmerizing. But the character is such an obvious fabulist that we are never sure when to believe him — if at all.
But does it really matter? Friel seems to be saying that, if you don’t drink to escape the realities of a world grown too hard to bear, you might just as well tell a story to ease the pain.