Highly recommended

Billy Roche's "Belfry" is the real thing. No frills, no fakery, no false illusions. The Irish playwright simply goes straight to the heart of things and refuses to flinch when the inevitable ache begins. Love is a sad song, and he sets his characters dancing to its rueful melodies, never forgetting that life always moves on, that ecstasy is fleeting, that memory may be all.

The Organic Theatre's production of "Belfry" — the final installment in the playwright's "Wexford Trilogy" — marks the first US. production of a Roche work, and he could not have asked for a more superb debut. Under Ina Marlowe's sensitive direction, five smart, subtle actors create the community of Wexford — the town on the southeast coast of the Irish Republic that is a key to Roche's world view. And the cast plays out his drama like a string quintet that has worked together for years.

Roche, whose work has been produced by London's Bush Theatre and BBC2 television, and who has created plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court, has a masterful understanding of human behavior and an infallible sense of when people speak, when they remain silent, when they resort to jokes. He also knows what happens when they are bursting at the seams with emotions but cannot express them, or, having spoken, must quickly jam them all back inside. The spirit of the play is Irish, but echoes of Chekhov also hover close by. Everyone wants to take flight, but they've all had their wings clipped.

The play takes the form of a secular confession by Artie O'Leary (Roderick Peeples, an actor of tremendous intelligence and authenticity), a man in early middle age, still living with his mother, who has spent his life working as a sacristan at the local church. He is a good friend to the young priest, Father Pat (the fiery Christopher Gausselin), who turns to the bottle when doubts about his calling overwhelm him. He also is unofficial caretaker of Dominic (a phenomenal quicksilver performance by Christopher Grobe, who's headed for great things), a high-spirited, learning disabled teenager who works as an altar boy. Dominic has a penchant for playing "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" on the church bells; it could easily be the play's blackly comic theme song.

Of course, there's "the woman," too. Pretty but prim, at least on the surface, Angela (Cynthia Judge in a performance full of surprises), creates floral arrangements for the altar when she is not tending to her husband, Donal (the excellent Jeff Still) and their children. But the fire of discontent rages in Angela, and Artie becomes the brief recipient of its life-changing beat, its pragmatic frostiness and the yearning that comes in their wake.

Roche's tale may not be new, but his writing sparkles with knowing touches that make its telling unusually rich. When Artie tries to be alone with Angela, for example, someone always enters the room or lingers beyond all welcome. And when lover and husband confront each other, there is empathy as well as rage. (The deftly cast Peeples and Still look almost like brothers.)

Kevin Snows set, focused on a strong arched window (With a lovely rose light courtesy of designer Jack K. Magaw) transforms the most horizontal of theater spaces into vertical one. But everything about this production soars.

Hedy Weiss

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