By Gary Mitchell
Directed by Carmel O'Reilly
Sugan Theatre
Boston Center for the Arts,  through May 5th, 2001.

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"Trust" is ugly and stupid and  mean and brutal and built like an old fashioned brick shit house-- a play without an ounce of poetry in it.  The Irish in Eire, and in Northern Ireland, have a plethora of talented poetic playwrights of Catholic background or Republican sympathies.  Gary Mitchell is the hot new young token Prod, a high school drop out raised in what Americans call  "project housing" in Belfast's Rathcoole. Written while the author was resident at the Royal National in London and  performed by Sugan with the meticulous devotion due to a major work of art, "Trust" is  is a beautiful thing to see.

The play's title is ironic:--  Mitchell shows that the loyalty of the Protestant Loyalists of Belfast has broken down under stress.  Basically, there's "us" and a "them"-- as there always is, alas.. "We" in this instance are the Prods, who are supposed to trust and reward each other, and enforce the rules that keep "them" in line.  Hand out carrots, swing a big stick at Catholics and traitors. But things are no longer so simple-- if they ever were.  All the characters in "Trust" have good reasons not to trust any of the others: not even the members of their own family.  However, there is plenty of trust on view on the BCA stage.  Director Carmel O'Reilly has inspired her cast to trust the author and the material and each other, and the result is ensemble playing that is alive with truth and particularity, thrilling to watch.  Much of what happens in Mitchell's play is familiar-- one can think of dozens of plays or movies or TV dramas in which there are similar incidents and relationships.  But "Trust" doesn't feel old or borrowed, but like a revelation. Mitchell seems to be writing from his life and for his life, at white heat, from a pain so intense that the only way to deal with it is to get it pegged, get its number.  It is this witness quality to the play that puts such demands on the performers, demands which begin with dialogue that is a subset of working class Belfast dialect in which every fifth word is some form of the f-word..  The cast meet these demands with flying colors.

One thing you can usually count on from O'Reilly's actors is good listening.  Here, the actors go a step further, into listening but willfully refusing to hear.  You can see the wheels turning, sense the shift in atmosphere as one character says something whose implications are too terrible to be faced, while the other puts up mental shutters to wall out the truth--  truth that has already entered his or her mind, and is being forcibly ejected.  Each character has a moment like this, but Joe Zamperelli's Geordie has them often enough that you have to wonder whether this is a weakness that will carry him to disaster, or the very quality that has made it possible for him to become a leader and "sort everybody out".  Geordie is a commander in the paramilitary Ulster Defense Association. His  friend Artty seems to be a sidekick or second in command, and when the two of them are relating as main man and sidekick, as they are in the scene where they watch the races on the telly at the top of the play, Geordie is in his element. Doug Marsden's Artty has the largest helping of charm, and the best laughs; but with wit, malice, control, condescending affection, Zamperelli's on top of it all.  Geordie's the king of "us".

His wife Margaret, too, seems to be used to running things-- as Geordie's adjutant whenever possible, in opposition when necessary. Margaret (Debra Wise) has called a serious problem to Geordie's attention.  Their only son, Jake (Alex Martinez Wallace), who has always been a good student and happy to be in school, is staying home with sick headaches more days than not this term.  Margaret knows what that means, and Geordie must know, too. Some bullies at school must be treating Jake as if he were one of "them" rather than the Prince of Us.  Jake won't talk about it, but Geordie has ways to find out who is responsible and order them to stop . Why won't he do it?  Doesn't he realize Jake's whole life is at stake?  What earthly use is it to be The Man if you can't protect your own son?  Geordie's response is to take fifteen year old Jake with himself and Artty to the Pub and initiate Jake into the manly rituals of beer and bonding.  Margaret is getting frantic. She enlists Trevor  (Billy Meleady), a foot soldier who took the fall for some paramilitary op and has spent the last decade or so in jail, to help her solve Jake's school problem.  Trevor's problem solving methods prove disastrous when they are exercised on the youngest son of a family high in the ranks of  the police  -- the RUC.

Billy Meleady is simply perfect as Trevor-- a shy and tender thug, if you can wrap your mind around that as a concept.  I suppose it helps that he is an Irishman in an Irish play, but Meleady's ability to discern what a character uniquely is and then simply fill  that outline with truth amounts to genius.  Fortunate the actor who is on stage with him-- Meleady  builds a whole world around himself, and generously draws others into it with him. Debra Wise, too,  is a wonder as Margaret.  She's been good in the several roles I've seen her play in the last year or two, but as Margaret-- well, first off, when I got around to reading the program at intermission and realized that Wise was the actor doing Margaret, it took me a couple of minutes to convince myself that it was physically possible for Wise to transform herself into this Irish person who walked, frowned, slumped, stood, gestured and spoke in ways I had never seen in her before. Her mothering of Jake is fierce and credible, but blind. How can love be so blind?

A subplot involves the bar maid Julie (Helen McElwain) and her B-Special boyfriend, Vincent (Shawn Sturnick), who are eager to use Vincent's Special privileges to steal guns from the army and sell them to Geordie's paramilitaries to finance a new life far away from Belfast.  The acting here is in a brighter key, but it is equally satisfying.  The lovers are alternately touching and appalling, and there is a great scene where Julie is so pissed at the way Vincent has bungled their caper that she is willing to chance getting shot rather than give up cussing him out at the top of her lungs.  The multiple settings and special effects-- a living room, bedroom, pub, woods, car, helicopter-- are handled with imagination and aplomb, thanks to O'Reilly's staging and the ingenious work of designers Peter Wilson, Neil Anderson, Sarah Chapman, Michael de Almeida and J. Michael Griggs. Gary Mitchell has wrought his home truths into a gripping suspense plot, and he finishes it off with an unexpected twist of the knife.  Mitchell was awarded "Most Promising Playwright" for "Trust"-- but he doesn't just promise.  With help from Sugan, he delivers.