‘Da’ luck o’ the Irish

by Nathan Leahy

Hugh Leonard’s name goes with a generation of post-independant Irish artists. He distanced himself from the overtly political drama of Yeats, Gregory and O’Casey, Leonard joins Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, John Montague and veritable wave of other post-independence Irish artists fixated on the challenge of reconciling a legacy of rampant poverty and parochialism with a future of uncertain possibilities.

Leonard’s most widely-acclaimed play, Da, is a semi-autobiographical account of his childhood in Dalkey, Ireland, as well as the first Irish play to win a Tony award. It is a spirited account of an adopted son, Charlie (Stephen Pelinski), reconciling himself with his past after the recent death of his burdensome but kind-hearted father (Tony Mockus). As Charlie reminisces, he both incites and participates in reanimating vignettes of his past, interacting with a younger version of himself (Joe Delafield), his mother (Barbara Bryne), his friend (Michael Booth) and his sardonic boss, Drumm (Jarlath Conroy). The result is a rolling dynamic of vibrant comedy, compassion, profound humility and restless anger that is sustained throughout the performance.

Doug Hughes returns to the Guthrie to direct Da, and Monica Frawley, who has done extensive work in Ireland including at the Abbey Theatre, has done a wonderful job at recreating a small piece Leonard’s Dalkey on the stage, so far, as to actually replicate the style of railing along the Dalkey shoreline. Already in last weekend’s previews, the performace carried a remarkable sense of dramatic force, despite a few slack moments in the second act, which are likely to be mended by Friday. Jarlath Conroy, a native of Ireland, plays Charlie’s cynical boss, Drumm, and routinely contributed a refreshing dose of absurdist humor to revitalise the house after the more poignant moments in the play. Delafield, who plays Charlie’s teenage incarnate, did a fine job in covering those supremely embarrasing moments in every young man’s life. The gold, however, goes to Mockus for his masterful portrayal of Charlie’s “da”, capturing his seemingly oblivious attitude to his son’s aspirations while suffocating Charlie’s sense of independence with his overwhelming concern.

Whether or not these characters will carry such an after Friday remains to be seen. Joe Dowling, artistic director at the Guthrie and an Irish native himself, emphasized much of the play is being worked on throughout the previews and won’t take final shape until Friday. Rest assured, most of play’s comedy and emotional drive should remain intact, as Dowling stressed that Hughes, as well as most Guthrie productions, remain faithful to the author’s text.

Da belongs to a special kind of theater that retains a sense of immediate relevance even decades after it was written – particularly now in regards to the astonising growth in the Irish economy during the past decade. Many of Da’s elements prove themselves very real – in or out of Irish society – as each generation moves from under the shadow of the previous, peppering the play with moments of separation, uncertainty, and reconciliation.

Da’s focus on the continuity of time and the complicated relationship between generations is a theme in much of Leonard’s work. Da bears an affinity with Friel’s Translations, containing the strong theme of the relationship between polarized generations, and how they manage to bridge the gap. Da focuses this challenge in a familiar way to all of us – between parent and child – and for this reason it has been able to speak to us directly for the past thirty years.