By Brian Friel
Directed by Carmel O'Reilly
Sugan Theatre
Boston Center for the Arts Through October 19th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Although Brian Friel is better known in America for his poetical works such as "Dancing at Lughnasa", "Faith Healer", and "Molly Sweeney" than he is for his polemical ones, Friel was born into the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, and the cruel history of that divided people is never far beneath the surface of his plays. In "The Freedom of the City", written shortly after the "Bloody Sunday" of 1972 when thirteen peacefully demonstrating Civil Rights marchers in Derry were shot dead by British soldiers, "the Troubles" is subject as well as subtext. Friel's play, in all its passion and pathos, is an eloquent reminder that in war, truth is the first casualty. For this reminder the play was savaged by critics at its premiere in 1973. Sugan Theatre, "dedicated to the production of plays that draw from the well of Celtic and Irish culture with an emphasis on the contemporary," notes in the program that it is doing the play now because "Peace...seemed within our grasp, but this summer startled us all with the five day standoff at Drumcree. To a large extent, Drumcree pushed matters back to where they were when this play was written."

"The Freedom of the City" begins with three dead bodies lying on the forestage in harsh white light. A news photographer scurries up to take pictures of them, and then a priest kneels beside them to give the last rites. Before this has finished, an English judge perched high up on a bench stage left begins conducting a hearing into the circumstances surrounding the deaths: .. "these three people came together, seized possession of a civic building, and openly defied the security forces. The facts may indicate that the deceased were callous terrorists who had planned to seize the Guildhall weeks before; or the misguided scheme occurred to them on that very day while they listened to revolutionary speeches".

Next a sociologist appears on the other side of the stage, lecturing the audience on the characteristics of the "culture of poverty". When the sociologist pauses, the action flashes back to the beginning of the incident: in the aftermath of a Civil Rights march broken up by rubber bullets and tear gas, three fleeing demonstrators stumble onto an unlocked door and take shelter in the Derry Guildhall, in the historic and luxurious Mayor's Parlour. As we know from testimony at the hearing, two of them are unmarried and unemployed men in their early twenties, Michael Joseph Hegarty and Adrian Casimir Fitzgerald; and the third is a forty-three year old housewife and mother of eleven children, Elizabeth Doherty. It takes but a line or two to discover that far from being conspirators occupying a symbolic building, the three are strangers to each other and only tangentially involved in the Civil Rights movement, whose marches and rallies add a bit of color and significance to their otherwise depressing lives.

Director Carmel O'Reilly leads her cast with her own performance as Lily, her Northern Irish accent setting the standard as, stranded as they are in an untenable situation, maternal Lily and boyish Adrian Casimir Fitzgerald (Joseph Garland) pass the time with comic repartee and homily business with shoes and hats and vaudeville snippets not all that different from those of Beckett's tramps. Lily quips that her children "come in a pattern like wallpaper: two boys, a girl, two boys, a girl, two boys, a girl two boys. If I had made the dozen, it would have been a wee girl, wouldn't it? But after Mark Antony the chairman hadn't a puff left in him." Garland as Fitzgerald - a glib and cynical young vagrant known as Skinner to his friends--is at his best in the bits where he has the support of the rock-solid O'Reilly, less convincing when he has to kick out in pranks of his own.

Friel has made his play a difficult one for Americans to perform by assigning two of the central roles to twenty year olds. Few young American actors have the technique to do an accent and emote at the same time. Derek Nelson can do both, but at the price of making his Michael Hegarty less boyish than he really ought to be. Michael has bought into the meliorative line: he'll escape the curse of discrimination and unemployment by "going to the tech four nights a week, you know, to improve myself, doing economics and business administration and computer science."

Michael can't share Skinner's impish delight at having the accouterments of Empire at his momentary mercy. Hegarty allows himself to be drawn in to trying on the ceremonial gowns of the municipal authorities, and even to taking one wee drink on the house -- as Lily persuasively says, "Since it was the British driv me off my own streets and deprived me of my sight and vision for a good quarter of an hour, the least the corporation can do is placate me with a wee drink."

Skinner, in full regalia, knights Michael with the Mayor's antique sword, and confers on their assemblage "the freedom of the city." But Michael is worried that even the mildest form of hooliganism will hurt the cause: "We must show them that we're responsible and respectable; and they'll come to respect what we're campaigning for." This is a boy's optimism, the obverse of the boyish "defensive flippancy" that is Skinner's mode. But Skinner, the homeless orphan, is the one who senses that their fate is already sealed: "A short time after I realized we were in the Mayor's Parlour I knew that a price would be exacted. I began to suspect what that price would be, because the poor are always overcharged."

The scene at the top of the second act in which Skinner speaks those words is a gem. It begins with a drunken balladeer (Billy Meleady) singing a fresh-composed tribute to the new-made Irish martyrs to the tune of Kevin Barry --"They join the lines of long-gone heroes, England's victims, one and all"-- while the Judge declares that "their action was a carefully contrived act of defiance". The three pathetic figures stand caught in the white glare of Army searchlights on the Guildhall steps, their arms raised in surrender, and describe for us their thoughts at the moment the bullets ripped into them-- a recitation as full of pity and terror as anything in the modern theatre.

The Sugan supporting cast is generally strong. Matthew Casey has exactly the right touch as the sociologist, and Derry Woodhouse's priest is a properly ambiguous figure. Both characters would gain a tad more ironic heft by being played by actors some twenty years older -- but that's a quibble. Leah Kane successfully negotiates a pair of gender switched representatives of the media who are eager to wring every drop of sensationalism out of the event. Billy Meleady is particularly impressive in four roles with four different accents. As for the production values, Mick Spence's Mayor's office set is less plush than it might be, but it functions well to keep the overlapping action in focus, and the stained glass window that dominates it is first-rate. Ben Emerson's sound score is complete with crowd noise, street sounds, announcements and gunfire timed to the nth. Susan Leonard's lighting picks out tableaux that burn into the memory. All in all, an effective presentation of a powerful and important play ---bravo Sugan!