hike to your theatre

Tonight I attended the Druid Theatre Company‘s version of the John B. Keane play, The Year of the Hiker. It was originally produced in 1963, and this Druid production is the final instalment of a trilogy of Keane’s plays that the company has tackled (Sharon’s Grave (2003) and Sive (2002)).

Recently, I’ve been making a concerted effort to attend more plays. Theatre is a completely different animal than cinema, but it offers great insights into drama and characters. It’s interesting to note what works in a play, but would not in a film. There is something extraordinarily visceral in a live performance, which is completely lacking in a movie. Intense emotions radiate from the stage, and engulf the audience in a shared understanding that transcends the rational.

Once again Druid has displayed its talent and theatrical acumen in this production of The Year of the Hiker. The set and lighting is minimal, but atmospheric and evocative. The actors are solid and engaging. Director Gary Hayes shows considerable insight by honing the performance to highlight the theme of forgiveness, with less emphasis on the gags and humour (although it is present and enjoyable where appropriate).

The play examines that happens to the Lacey family when their wandering father (known as Hiker Lacey) returns, ill and dying, after a 20-year absence.

The first scene establishes the family dynamic: Kate Lacey (Marie Mullen), the wife and mother, her unmarried sister Freda (Catherine Walsh), the two boys, Joe (Garrett Lombard) and Simon (Aaron Monaghan), and the daughter Mary (Sarah Jane Drummey) who is heading off to the church to marry her young doctor, Willie Dolly (Nick Lee). Even though their father is absent, he haunts their thoughts on a joyous day.

In the second scene, the Hiker (Eamon Morrissey) appears as Freda waits for the family to return, and she launches into a vitriolic verbal attack on the weak and ill old man. He claims to want redemption in his final days, but there is no forgiveness for him in the beginning. 20 years of anger, pain and fear boil to the surface and the Hiker is subjected to numerous attacks, both physical and emotional, for this abandonment of the family. The final scene of the first act is particularly intense as Kate breaks her silence and explodes with rage towards her husband. Marie Mullen is incredible in this scene. She is entirely believable as a scorned wife who has endured two decades of village gossip and loneliness.

Eamon Morrissey does a fine job of depicting a beaten and dying man, who clings to the hope of forgiveness, and fears death and the judgment it might bring. As the scenes unfold Hiker becomes frailer, until he is a skeletal scarecrow of a man, who would not look amiss in a Beckett play.

The final scene has another stand-out performance between Hiker and his oldest son, Joe, which had many in the audience sniffing and crying. The subsequent standing ovation was not surprising. Tonight the weather was wild, wet, and windy, and the howling gusts added a mournful touch to several sequences during the play. You can’t plan for moments like that.

The play does have its weaknesses. Some of the retribution scenes are too long, and it seemed to me that there was needless repetition, but the Druid team did a great job of minimising this issue.

I do have a credibility problem with how Freda and Kate transform towards the end of the play. Ultimately, the Hiker left his family for 20 years, and that’s hard to justify no matter what the issues he had with his wife and her sister. However, the thaw of the family towards the Hiker is so well delivered that you tend to overlook that hiccup. Near the end the Hiker says (I’m probably paraphrasing), “Hate lives next door to love. Sometimes you don’t know one from the other.” When it comes to family, such emotions are intertwined, and often not easy to separate. Keane does a great job of displaying their complexities without straying into sentimentality.

Ultimately, this is a play about relationships between a Father and his sons. When I considered the play afterwards it was obvious that the women are not the main focus, and in fact, they are portrayed as the problem in the play. The Hiker tries to pass himself as a victim at times, even though Keane is smart enough not to belabour this point. Mary does not have much to do in the play except act as a metaphor for how the family has survived the Hiker’s absence and moved up in the world. She is pretty and bourgeois, with a doctor husband, and we never see if she reconciles with her father.

The Druid actors do a great job of covering up these flaws with their performances. By the end of the play you are swept up in the moment, and such thoughts are far from your mind.

Those of you who live in Dublin should make an effort to attend the Gaiety performances next week. The Americans among you have the opportunity to see the Druid’s award-winning performance of the entire theatrical canon of John Millington Synge at the Lincoln Center in New York in July 2006.