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Sean O'Casey's scathing antiwar play 'The Silver Tassie' reopens Irish wounds
NEW YORK (AP) ' "The Silver Tassie" by Sean O'Casey is a haunting, heartbreaking and bleak anti-war outcry, as pitilessly relevant today as when it was written in 1928.
O'Casey's controversial, scathing attack on the pointless horrors of World War I was famously rejected by W.B. Yeats for production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, with Yeats alleging that O'Casey knew nothing firsthand about combat.
But the playwright's focus is on the ruinous effects of war ' both physical and emotional ' on ordinary people and societal norms. His expressionist drama, filled with black humor and irony, follows the interactions of a group of Dublin neighbors before, during and after the men join the British fighting force in France.
Ireland's Druid Theatre Company production in New York, part of the Lincoln Center Festival, is based on O'Casey's 1949 revision of the play. This version was colored by his anger that the devastating "war to end all wars" he'd railed against 20 years earlier was merely a prelude to a far more catastrophic conflagration.
Expertly directed by Garry Hynes, Druid's artistic director, the presentation blazes with emotion and bold choices. O'Casey's lilting use of language and his political and religious satire, laced with anti-war bitterness, are given a grand staging. The Druid players are all gifted, and Hynes' discerning direction ' together with the design of Francis O'Connor and elegiac choreography by David Bolger with Vanessa Lefrancois ' all enhance the emotional power of the production.
The play opens with friends and relatives eagerly awaiting football hero Harry Heegan (a brilliant performance by Garrett Lombard) after a crucial game, before the neighborhood men go off to war. Ominously, the Heegan family living room in Dublin is surrounded by large, blood-red walls.
Domestic tragedies are not suspended by the war. A soldier on leave, Teddy (a brutish performance by Liam Carney), publicly abuses his wife (a cowering but resilient portrayal by Marion O'Dwyer) with no interference from their fearful neighbors.
The arrival of boyishly exuberant Harry, proudly bearing a big silver trophy (the tassie) and his pretty girlfriend, Jessie (Charlie Murphy), sets off a brief celebration, with the scene displaying all that youths like Harry could potentially lose in the war.
The battlefield set in Act 2, dominated by an enormous tank decorated with a near life-size crucified Christ, teems with grim humor and tragedy. The weary soldiers repeatedly leap up to salute their addled British commanders, then collapse back on the ground, only to slowly roll together and rise as one, all the while singing rousing songs by O'Casey.
Dirge-singing medics come and go, bearing stretchers with injured or dead fighters swathed in bandages. Elliot Davis provides original music that, along with Davy Cunningham's lighting and John Leonard's sound design all deepen the nightmarish effects.
In Act 3's Dublin hospital setting, the worst has happened; Harry is paralyzed from the waist down, Jessie is avoiding him, and everyone, from doctors to nuns to neighbors and family, continually offer him empty platitudes about hope.
Two bickering old men, engagingly portrayed by Eamon Morrissey and John Olohan, act as the chorus, and perform the time-honored function of continually whistling past the graveyard. Comically appearing throughout the play like a pair of vaudevillians, their presence leavens the tragedy, although they embody the willful ignorance of the Irish to delve too deeply into their psychic wounds after the war.
Clare Dunne is intensely luminous as Susie Monican, a hellfire-spouting, puritanical young woman who morphs into a frisky, sensual nurse during wartime service.
In the final act, O'Casey provides a bitter vision of wheelchair-trapped Harry raging about his faithless girlfriend while his neighbors dance and celebrate all around him at an Armistice party. Most poignantly, Lombard plays the ukulele and sings a soulful "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" that nobody listens to.
In a tragic coda, O'Casey has Susie earnestly explain to the audience that the presence of disabled veterans unfortunately impedes the return to normalcy of all those who came through the war unscathed.