Irish theater arrived in Malibu last Friday evening with Billy Roche’s “Belfry,” the second offering of the Malibu Playhouse’s 2013-14 season. Even when riven by political and sectarian turmoil, Ireland has maintained a long and illustrious theater tradition.
The last two centuries have given us a multitude of noteworthy dramatists, running the eclectic gamut from Wilde and Shaw through Yeats and Beckett, with Dublin’s iconic Abbey Theater as the venue for much of their work.
Roche is one of the contemporary crop of Irish playwrights and he continues the tradition of Irish theater excellence. Fellow playwrights have dubbed him the “godfather of the contemporary Irish play.” Belfry is the third play in his Wexford Trilogy and the Playhouse’s presentation is its West Coast premiere. All are set in Wexford, a seaside village in which Roche grew up and served as altar boy.
The play’s two-tiered set is a Catholic church’s vestry and its bell tower. Artie, the central character played by Michael Hyland, is a gentle, middle-aged sacristan and bell-ringer who lives at home with his bed-ridden mother.
Artie’s lonely existence is turned upside down by Angela (Rebekah Tripp), a lusty married woman with children who attends to the flowers in the church. The bell tower, his refuge from the outside world, becomes a trysting place for their unlikely affair as Angela takes the inexperienced Artie through emotional registers he had never been exposed to.
“[She] tapped a hidden reservoir inside of me that I didn’t know was there,” he muses.
Hyland captures Artie’s good-natured and troubled personality, which complements Tripp’s tough-as-nails Angela.
But their relationship is not the only story line of the drama. Under Roche’s hand, “Belfry” reveals how these ostensibly Wexford lives are not simple and at their core they are lost souls.
Angela’s cuckolded husband, Donal (John Rushing), a frustrated factor worker with dreams of emigrating to Canada, is revealed as a more sympathetic character than his wife and more complex than he first appears. Rushing plays Donal with appropriate restraint, which morphs into vigor as the emotional dam bursts.
Elsewhere in the church there is angst. Father Pat (Graham Sibley), the parish priest, is a tormented, young man experiencing a crisis of faith. Depressed with the task of ministering to his flock (“I’m surrounded by the dead and dying”), he bemoans his work, questions celibacy, and finds solace in drink and chain-smoking.
A bright spot, leavened with fear for his future, is the altar boy, Dominic, in a particularly noteworthy performance by young actor Daniel David Stewart. A dim-witted, delinquent adolescent, Dominic has been effectively adopted as a surrogate son by Artie and Father Pat. He is under constant threat of being institutionalized in a dreaded “industrial school.” Yet his unfunny puns are the source of much of the humor in the play. He says he wants to make people happy, and there is a genuineness about him that has a Holden Caulfield quality. Stewart inhabits the character of Dominic fully, exhibiting Dominic’s zaniness as well as his fears.
All of the actors are making debut appearances at the Malibu Playhouse. Although none are Irish, they affect a native accent that at times can be almost too realistic. Ratcheting the brogue down a notch would help the American ear.
A non-actor whose impressive work is on view throughout the play deserves special mention, Erin Walley, the Scenic Designer. The cluttered vestry of the village church occupies most of the stage and looks strikingly realistic, while a raised platform serves as the belfry, complete with the bell rope.
Director Veronica Brady deserves credit for the quality of performances, as well as an ensemble cast including: Claudia Zahn (Managing Director and Co-Producer), Jeremy Pivnick (Lighting Design), Hannah Lowe (Prop Design), Andrea Wheeler (Costume Design), Shark (Music Direction), Bruce Greenspan (Sound Design), whose bell ringing tones rock the house, and Nicholas Acciani (Stage Manager). The Playhouse’s Artistic Director, Gene Franklin Smith, is also a Co-Producer and deserves plaudits for selecting the play.