The prototypical life cycle of a writer goes something like this: Be born in a small town where nothing ever happens. If possible, have a lonely, melancholy childhood. Strike out on your own as a clueless young adult—move to New York, if you’re American, or maybe to London, if you grow up in a suburb of Dublin. “Make good” while making sure to mine your unhappy childhood for writing material. When you’re finally successful, return to your childhood home, and then face the ghosts of your past.
Hugh Leonard, prolific Irish playwright and newspaper columnist, drew from his own adolescence in writing DA, his surreal tragicomedy which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1978. In it, Charlie has reached the “go back home” stage of the writer’s life cycle.
Age forty-something, married with one kid, he travels from London to Dalkey, County Dublin, to bury his father and dispose of his parent’s personal effects as quickly as possible. His father, called “Da,” is indisputably dead, but Charlie (Daniel McGlaughlin in a most challenging role) doesn’t bat an eyelash when Da himself (the seasoned John Cannon) walks into the room, anyway. Charlie mainly reacts with annoyance that Da won’t leave him alone and go gentle into that good night, for cryin’ out loud.
Things turn more surreal when Charlie becomes a witness to scenes between Da, his also-deceased mother (Mary Pat Walsh, portraying beautifully a woman whose nerves are on the edge of fraying) and his own teenage self (J. Oliver Donahue, convincing as a younger version of the protagonist). The adult Charlie sees his adolescence in the 1940s all over again. His childhood friend Oliver appears as an awkward teenager (the endearing Lee Stover), carrying around a permanent Cheshire cat grin.
As flashbacks unfold, lighting cues (warm, moody design by Andrew Cowles) are sometimes not enough to delineate confusing shifts in scene. Musical interludes (sound by musicians Jack Zaferes and Derek Gertz) vaguely evoke an Irish atmosphere.
Most of the action takes place within Charlie’s childhood home, from Da’s chair to the kitchen (a uniquely convincing set by brother-and-sister team Ian and Siobhan McCrane). At the back, we can just see the staircase up to young Charlie’s bedroom. The kitchen table becomes an emotional focal point. By contrast, some of the exterior scenes exist in a black-boxish world.
Charlie frequently breaks the fourth wall, as if seeking sympathy from the audience as he battles with Da. Actor McGlaughlin’s looks of embarrassment, indignation, and resignation—tossed out while the audience is laughing at Da’s stubbornness and obliviousness—lure us to empathize with the son, who wears his witticism and cynicism like armor. In time, we recognize Charlie as self-centered at best, cold and spiteful at worst.
The not-so-prodigal son
Time has given Charlie some insights into his own youthful stupidity, but not wisdom. He rails at Da for his folly and for “spoiling everything”—even an attempt by young Charlie to lose his virginity. How? By Da revealing that the object of Charlie’s lust is not an object, but a real human being named Mary Tate (Kelly Filios, who transforms her character as if she were flipping a light switch). An actual person “was the last thing I wanted,” Charlie tells the audience.
Worse, even after the death of both his parents, Charlie refuses to see them as real human beings with their own emotional lives, while he demands impossible answers of them: Why is Da the way he is? Why did his parents adopt him and then make him feel indebted to them? Why did they have to be so embarrassing, so uncultured, so awful?
Charlie’s second mentor and Da’s foil, civil servant Drumm (Mark Knight, an artist of many hats) gives Charlie his first job. If he wants to get ahead in life, Drumm warns him, your Da is “the enemy”—further poisoning Charlie’s strained relationship with his adoptive father.
Watching from the third row at Plays & Players, I wondered if Drumm styled himself on Winston Churchill at his most sardonic. Knight, a dyed-in-the-wool English actor, once an educator at the Globe Theatre, makes Drumm a forbidding figure in clear contrast to the working class Da. When invited for dinner, Drumm never unbuttons his tight-fitting, dark grey coat, in contrast to Da’s cozy sweater vest and Mother’s patterned apron (costuming by Kassy Bradford clearly conveys culture and economic status in the play).
The play frequently references Catholic social mores, IRA violence, and World War II anxieties—including Da’s naively enthusiastic support for Hitler, which evokes cringes from Da’s family and the audience. Playgoers somewhat hazy on their Irish history, including myself, can still follow along.
The Irish Heritage Theatre dedicated this production to John Cannon, a founding member of the company, popular actor of many decades, and doyen of Irish theater in Philadelphia. Formerly an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, later a Captain in the U.S. Army JAG Corps, and a professor of law at Villanova University since 1971, Cannon embodies Da with humor and depth, projecting comic obliviousness, engaging curmudgeoness, and puckish oh-so-Irish-ness.
As so often in Cannon’s other roles, his performance of DA provides glimpses of the vulnerability behind his character’s quirks, especially in a scene with his posh English employer, Mrs. Prynne (an appropriately aristocratic Susan Giddings).
It was Cannon who first encouraged the IHT to stage DA some years ago. Judging by this production, the play deserves to be produced more often on this side of the pond. Under the direction of Peggy Meacham, the cast achieves a naturalism that helps a predominantly American audience to jump the “language barrier.”
At the end of the night, I went home to my apartment on the south side of Philadelphia, the city that I moved to for a new stage in my writer’s life, far away from my hometown and my parents in Texas.
[Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey Street] March 7-23, 2019; irishheritagetheatre.org
Originially published March 12, 20019 at Phindie.