Theatrical fireworks exceeding anything seen over the Hudson River on July 4th are on display at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater courtesy of “DruidMurphy,” part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Here are three unrelated but complementary dramas by Irish scribe Tom Murphy, imported from the Galway-based Druid Theater and directed by founder/a.d. Garry Hynes. Ten-day fest visit includes two single performances of each title, plus two full-cycle marathon days. Each play packs a wallop, figuratively and literally; the combination of Hynes, her designers and a strong cast of Irish actors makes the marathons exceptional viewing.
All three plays hinge on Irish emigration, from different viewpoints. Set in the mid-1970s, “Conversations on a Homecoming” (1985) is a 10-year reunion of pals in a Cork pub, welcoming back a friend from an unsuccessful New York stint as an actor. The play’s sympathies can be found in a hallowed portrait of John F. Kennedy over the bar, which is not so subtly named the White House.
“A Whistle in the Dark” (1961), Murphy’s first and most important play, is about an Irish emigrant living in London whose home is invaded by his brutal and sadistic father and brothers.
Thematic centerpiece is “Famine” (1968), which traces the root problem of national identity to the Irish Potato Famine — and the resulting enforced emigrations — of the 1840s. It’s a compelling and evocative piece, although non-Irish/English patrons at the marathons might have trouble keeping focused.
Hynes has devised the cycle with the direct participation of the 77-year-old Murphy, who wrote the plays independently of each other. Hynes gathers an excellent team of collaborators for the well-executed project, including set designer Francis O’Connor, who places the three plays within a frame of corrugated metal sheets. “Famine” — with drought and hunger progressing to starvation and despair, over 12 scenes — calls for the most creative work from the other departments, and the results are haunting.
Acting company is uniformly strong, the impression magnified by the power of the 10 who are double or triple cast. These include Marty Rea, with a smooth and handsome facade hiding his overseas failure as the returning emigre in “Conversations” and masking his internal conflict as the intellectual brother trying to escape his violent family in “Whistle”; and Aaron Monaghan giving a flesh-crawling turn as the sadistic brother in “Whistle” and a nuanced perf as a crippled man in “Famine.” Also standing out are Niall Buggy, as the chilling patriarch in “Whistle”; Brian Doherty as the Job-like potato farmer at the center of “Famine”; as well as Garrett Lombard, Beth Cooke and Gavin Drea.