By Donal O'Kelly
Directed by Carmel O'Reilly
Presented by Sugan Theater
At the Boston Center for the Arts, through November 21st 1998
Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Donal O'Kelly's play is a mess, dramaturgically.  But if it would never serve as a blueprint for the "how" of play writing, it certainly does serve to illustrate the "why".  "Asylum! Asylum!"-- which premiered at the Abbey's Peacock Theatre in 1994 -- is O'Kelly's passionate plea for his country to reconsider its cruel immigration laws, and recognize kinship with the refugees who seek  political asylum there.  To make his point O'Kelly has assembled a cast of characters who represent different points of view-- or at least different versions of enlightened self interest-- and put them into relationship with an appealing refugee from Uganda named Joseph Omara.  The author insists that their response to Omara's plea to be allowed to live unmolested among them is a test of character, for individuals and for the nation.  It's not a test any nation I know something about would pass, but it is a good test nevertheless-- as is proved by the Sugan actors' full hearted performance, and the tears and pin drop silence which that performance drew from its audience..

Director Carmel O'Reilly and her actors are convinced that they have real and important stuff to deal with, and that if they do it well the audience will be moved to pity and terror.  The action of the play drives home the human cost of perfectly rational policies: not only for the victims, but also for the civil servants who must enforce the policies. Because O'Kelly has provided a dozen scenes where the actors can bare their battered souls, and the Sugan actors have boldly embodied them, the audience is likely to go home and think long and hard about such basic questions as "Who is my neighbor?" and "Am I my brother's keeper?", exactly as O'Kelly wants his audience to do. For anyone who is susceptible to such pleas in the theatre, the play is a success, even if the long and hard thinking about the moral issues it raises must begin by rejecting almost all the details supplied by the writer as clumsy claptrap.

The author built his plot around two news items:  a 1991 incident in Northern Uganda where a rogue faction of the ruling bureaucracy burned alive some political opponents in a pit covered with logs; and the 1992 torching of an immigrants' hostel in Germany, where the police made no effort to intervene with what was essentially a lynch mob.  The imagery of these incidents is the metaphorical scaffolding of the play.  If O'Kelly were making a film, the confinement and smoke and fire and the fear and guilt and hate could be woven more easily into a realistic/exotic background .  Choosing to frame his material within a fairly traditional set of stage conventions, the dramatist must get these images into his audience's minds though the words that come out of his characters' mouths, and attribute the accompanying emotions to off-stage experiences the on stage characters have had.  O'Kelly makes the first incident an experience of an illegal alien, one Joseph Omara, and the alien's loss the double one of father and fatherland.

O'Kelly's protagonist, the one who is changed by the experience the play charts, is a police officer:  Leo Gaughran, whose job it is to deport Joseph Omara back to Uganda before the alien takes a scare job away from some native Irishman.  In custody, the African claims asylum on the grounds that he was tortured by Ugandan officials who will kill him if he is returned to that country.  Leo decides that it is wiser to allow Omara to attribute his bruises to Ugandan brutality than to the brutality of the Irish police, and he calls on his sister Mary, a recent law school graduate, to file Omara's petition for asylum.  Mary gets her client released on bail, and Joseph moves into the siblings' childhood home with their father, Bill, himself a recently retired officer.  Bill quickly warms to Joseph. The old man is especially impressed by the stories Joseph tells about his father, a schoolteacher.   Bill's own relationship with his motherless children is complex and uncomfortable; and his son Leo has no relationship at all with his own son, Bill's grandson, or with the boy's mother. The fifth character in the play is Pillar Boylan, a colleague of Leo's who is currently a subordinate, but with whom Leo seems to have a long standing rivalry and Mary a past sexual connection.

The play feels somewhat as if the actors were asked to write out detailed character bios in order to enrich their performances, and then O'Kelly put all that into the play along with his political issues and his moral parable.  This is hard on the audience: to follow the story we must assimilate and remember a huge load of expository material, some of which sounds highly unlikely to have happened and some of which, while plausible, seems unlikely to be mentioned under the circumstances.  But the compensation is, the Sugan actors believe all this stuff-- good actors have no trouble with six impossible things before breakfast-- and perform "as if".  Jerry Flynn plays Bill as a man whose retirement has opened him up to sympathy and self knowledge he never dared accept before.  Michael Nurse is heartbreaking as the Ugandan.  I don't know if his accent is authentic, but it sounds so, and it is a thing of beauty, a storyteller's instrument.  Nurse's simplest utterance carries the weight of horrendous experience, secrets piled on top of a naturally open and affectionate nature. Celeste McClain uses Mary's past, her wild youth and studious reformation, to filter everything she does and says. Douglas Rainy's Boylan is simpler: merely conflicted, which the actor conveys through brief blank patches where warring impulses are at equilibrium, followed by bursts of defensive energy.   Chris Burke has the most impossible things to integrate into his Leo, and he is masterly at it.  His character is the one with the longest view and the most malleable heart. The path Leo chooses is set up so that he chooses for the New Ireland as well as for himself.  Burke makes all this personal.  In the final scene Burke's Leo puts the case for rational cruelty with such intensity that it becomes easy to believe that sensitive minds, and democratic nations, must snap under the stress.