By Tom Murphy
Directed by Carmel O'Reilly
Sugan Theater, At the Boston Center for the Arts, through October 10th, 1998

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Carmel O'Reilly's Sugan Theatre does exclusively contemporary Irish plays, and Tom Murphy, who has been sketching the his compatriots' souls for over thirty years,  is a favorite author with the company and with its audience.  His ''Famine'' and ''The Gigli Concert'' were highlights in previous seasons, and "Conversations on a Homecoming" also promises to please those with an abiding interest in, to borrow the tittle of another author's play, the Irish and how they got that way.  "Conversations" shares in the dark diagnoses of Murphy's other work, but the long one act is more an essay or a snapshot than a magnum opus, with neither the scope of ''Famine'' nor the depth of ''Gigli''.  Sugan has given it a top notch production, with lovely ensemble work and scrupulous attention to detail, both material and spiritual.  Sarah Pruitt's costumes are convincing, Laurel Dahill's tavern ambiance utterly realistic,  and the bar talk is marvelous, with the waves of reminiscence and speculation rising and falling in the inimitable rhythm of a long night in an Irish pub.

Billy Meleady  is Michael, come home in the early 1970's to visit his friends in a one horse town in County Galway after a decade of working in a small but steady way as an actor in New York and occasionally in Hollywood.  His friends meet Michael for a drink and a chat in the Pub that was the focus of their youthful dreams and plans.  Tavenkeeper J. J.,  once a Dublin dreamer and battler, retreated to their Galway backwater and drew the rural young people together under the inspiration of the glamorous figure of the Irish-American who rose to be the leader of the Free World, JFK.  Back then the friends helped J.J. remodel the Pub, which he took over when he married Missus (Carmel O'Reilly) the woman who was heir to it. They tore down the partition between the bar and the public room, symbol of the artificial barriers to the men and women of Ireland uniting for progress, hung up a painting of a nude to symbolize freedom from outdated clerical strictures, and generally fit the place out to serve as a hotbed of reform and liberalism.   J.J., in those heady days of the sixties youthquake, made the budding idealists believe that there were ways for each of them to break out of rural Ireland's bleak economic circumstances and crippling conformities.  It was a New Frontier, they were to be the pioneers.

Michael returns to find a failing pub where the symbolic partition is back up and the nude's been taken down, and J.J., while still the titular tavernkeep, is off drunk somewhere all on his own, apparently a pariah.  Missus is brittle and blank, a comic cipher.  With pretty teen age daughter Anne, (Deirdre Lenihan) Missus is in charge of the pub now-- and it's  no longer a hotbed of anything.  The childhood friends have given up their dreams and are sunk into the bleak and grudging folkways they so resented when they were young and hopeful.  Now it seems that what they resent most is hope, and especially hope's Pied Piper, J. J.   He's no more than a drunk and a slob, they repeat with a contempt that grows with every round of drinks.  A con man, never what he pretended to be.  Tom, (Brian Scally) the one with the way with words, the potential Yeats or Joyce who wrote the reformers' fiery speeches and manifestos, did get away long enough for some schooling-- but Tom has returned to his home town to teach grammar school and take care of his parents, and to wait impatiently for the end, one way or another, of his ten year engagement to Peggy.   Junior (Ciaran Crawford) is married and has kids, along with a  laboring job and a likely future of alcoholism. Liam (Sid Quilty) is amassing land and power in local politics, and seems likely to exploit whatever economic opportunities turn up in the next decade, but as he progresses through the rounds of drinks from the bar Liam begins to reveal a tribal bully under the affable businessman. Peggy, (Irene Daly) Tom's long term fiancé, remembers just enough of her J.J. inspired voice lessons to be self conscious about singing in the company of her old friends.  Peggy was quick to welcome Michael with a hug when he entered, but she'll be just as quick to put him in his place if he reopens old wounds and destablizes the peace they've all made with despair.  Gradually Michael sees the shape of the stories he would be living if he lived here, the person he would be forced to be.

The Sugan performers have no trouble convincing us that they are old friends-- they have the kind of comfort in their on-stage environment and bone deep sensitivity to each other that is the result of years of collaboration and commitment.  They play the music of Murphy as well as his characters, and they're a rare pleasure to watch-- even sober.