'The Steward of Christendom' is a masterpiece

By Jack Helbig
Daily Herald Correspondent

Pity poor Thomas Dunne. Aged, "boggy in the head," living out his last, lonely days in a madhouse. His grasp on reality is tenuous; his current tedious life feels like a dream to him while events that happened 10, 20, even 30 years ago seem utterly real.

Dunne's sorrows — both past and present — make up the heart of Sebastian Barry's sublime, bittersweet play, "The Steward of Christendom," an international hit and the fifth in a planned series of seven plays about "the lost, hidden or seldom mentioned people in one Irish family." Told from Dunne's point of view, Barry's clear-eyed play shows us with devastating honesty both Dunne's boring, daily life — he essentially lives in solitary confinement in a cell with a table, a cot, and one chair — and the memories of family life in Dublin that keep haunting him,

In his prime, Dunne was a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, eventually becoming the officer in charge of Dublin Castle — a worthy and enviable station in life in normal times.

But Dunne didn't live in normal times. He lived through Ireland's difficult and violent years, the teens and 20s, when first the Irish Republican Brotherhood and then the lRA fought for Ireland's independence.

These were year's when being a Catholic Irishman working for the ruling British government made you an "Uncle Tom" of sorts, an instant traitor to the cause of free Ireland.

It's a mark of Barry's greatness as a playwright that he never takes sides in portraying Dunne's life. He never condemns Dunne for supporting the British to the bitter end. Nor does he praise him for being a loyal servant of the crown.

Barry just gives us Dunne and his life — presented in a series of Dunne's hallucinations — and allows us to see the full man, warts and all, which makes the play all the more moving.

Of course, it helps that Barry is g gifted storyteller with a keen ear for dialogue and an Irish writer's knack for distilling sublime beauty out of sorrow.

And sorrow is something Dunne has had plenty of. His beloved wife died in childbirth, his favorite daughter fled Ireland for a new life in America, and the job he was so proud of, with its sharp uniform and its air of civic responsibility, only led him to disgrace in the eyes of his countrymen.

In less adept hands, Barry's moody, bittersweet play could easily have become cliched, sentimental or over the top, especially when Dunne begins arguing with the phantoms from his past — his long- dead son and his long-departed daughters. But than Barry clearly deserves his place among the writers, poets and painters who make up Dublin's current artistic renaissance.

But Barry alone doesn't deserve praise for the success of this show. The folks at the Organic Touchstone Company have pulled out all of the stops and delivered a production as good or better than anything they have done in recent memory.

Ina Marlowe's direction never waivers. Every moment in the play feels right, every revelation in the story feels unforced, every comic moment is earned.

More importantly, Marlowe's casting is absolutely solid. There is not a weak link in the ensemble. Everyone has been given the right position in the drama, even the too-often-miscast Melinda Moonahan is terrific here as a kindly nurse. Everyone's work shines.

No one, however, outshines Lawrence McCauley. Best known for his work as a comic actor in silly farces like "It Runs in the Family" or "Season's Greetings," McCauley is an actor of unusual depth and power. Given a role where he must dominate the stage for two solid hours, he does so easily, never flagging, never giving anything less than his all to the show.

Thanks to McCauley's subtle performance, Dunne never seems pathetic or beyond redemption, just pitiable, foolish, and (sigh) all too human.

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