Malibu Playhouse is currently running one of the more intriguing shows of the season with its production of Belfry, a West Coast Premiere and third installment of the Wexford Trilogy by playwright Billy Roche who is largely credited as the “godfather of the contemporary Irish play.”
Directed by Veronica Brady, Belfry first premiered in 1991 at the Bush Theatre in London and then transferred to the Abbey Theatre and the Theatre Royal. It was subsequently filmed for the BBC with the original cast. To date, Roche rarely grants rights to his plays to intimate theatres in the US. So this is truly an occasion and not to be missed.
To experience Belfry is to say that it is a very ordinary “every man’s” tale. But there is always something in the telling, the spoken word, actually, that elucidates a deeper side not immediately visible on the exterior, even though one might initially think so; which for modern audiences who tend to be superficially visual, can work against itself. If you’re not good at listening between the lines, you might not always get the real meaning. In this case, it is the voice of the script itself projected by the acting, the stage direction and extraordinary stage design, that best reveals the crevices of the writer’s emotions, and which brought the actors and elements to life, rather than the opposite.
Belfry is a story about Artie O’Leary, a lonely, middle-aged man who lives with his invalid mother and works as a sacristan (a person in charge of keeping vestments such as the alb and chasuble and other church furnishings, sacred vessels, and parish records) in the Catholic church in small-town Wexford circa 1980s. He falls in love with Angela, the married woman who changes flowers at the church. When he kisses her after the birthday party for a troubled altar boy, their passionate affair in the church’s belfry begins. Artie’s life changes for the better, until a stunning betrayal tears he and Angela apart.
Belfry is so purely Irish and there were plenty of audience to claim it. And yet, everyone, everyone, who feels loneliness, longing and loss, in the world will find a connection.
Here is the clutch, though, Belfry is not an easy piece. Sure, it seems like it’s a simple moment to moment, day to day exercise in relationships, but the writer is not an open book, and his story comes across as “locked-up” as a man who would never allow himself open public emotion – even being an Irishman, which says a lot. It’s a proud piece. And for all of their musicality, love of life, pranks, jokes, fights and breakdowns, these people almost don’t dare to breath sometimes, for what seems like the fear of feeling pain or confronting life, as is. On the surface emotions are displayed but their real passions are mostly kept inside which creates an underlying tension. There is an unmistakeable intimacy and sensuality but this rendition gives no real dramatic arches or low points anywhere in either act. What we inevitably witness are people living their lives as would you or I; except we get to see their secrets.
Don’t go to this show with any expectation of high drama or melodramatic, soap opera-ish tanglings. And, in truth, that is not the reason to do so. Go for the shared experience with these people, who are living ordinary lives, with ordinary faults and hopes and yearnings and fears and dreams. Overall, it’s a gorgeous piece and well worth spending time with.
Sweet performances by Daniel David Stewart as “Dominic” and Rebekah Tripp as “Angela”.
Impeccable outstanding deliveries by John Rushing (Donal) and Graham Sibley (Father Pat).
Michael Hyland is a driving force as “Artie”.
Belfry is another outstanding offering by the Malibu Playhouse, a MUST SEE and so worth the ticket.