Stunning star performance fuels Irish family drama

By Richard Christiansen
Tribune Chief Critic

There are moments in "The Steward of Christendom" when Lawrence McCauley's portrayal of the title character is less than perfect: a touch of stridency, a bit of ham. a tendency to cling too long to one note.

Never mind all that. This is an inspired, overwhelming performance, one of those works that can bring you to tears with the truth and power of its insights.

In Sebastian Barry's 1995 drama, McCauley is Thomas Dunne, an old man put away in a county home in Ireland in 1932. Talking to himself and railing against his past, he relives both the histories of his family and of Ireland, which are intertwined.

The program notes provided by the Organic Touchstone Company will give you all the background you need to follow the references to people and events of the troublesome times mentioned in the play.

McCauley, in the force of his personality, will take care of the rest, for, though this is a play about Ireland, it is also about a deeper subject, of the fragility of family and of the delicacy of the love between husband and wife, father and children.

Drawing on his own family history (plus a bit of "King Lear") and empowering that story with the sentimental genius of Irish eloquence, Barry has created a luminous character in Dunne; and McCauley has given it flesh and blood and soul through his energy, craftsmanship, daring and infinite tenderness.

He is not always alone on stage. The production, directed with a sure hand by Ina Marlowe, is well cast and well played in is eight supporting roles, particularly in the case of Rebecca J. Ennals, Rohanna Doylida and the fiery Moira Brennan as Dunne's three daughters.

But for much of its two acts, "Steward" is virtually a one-man show, with McCauley holding forth in solo splendor, almost singing one extended speech after another as Dunne darts in and out of his memories.

The small space representing Dunne's cell that designer Joseph P. Tilford has created sharply focuses audience attention. And McCauley never lets loose of the intensity and, at times, enraptured ferocity of his work.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the play's closing scene, in which Thomas tells a family story to the spirit of his long-dead son.

The gnarled old man and the innocent lad (beautifully played in silence by Christopher Grebe), sit alone in bed; and slowly, sweetly Thomas unfurls his story of a fathers love for his son.

Lord only knows if McCauley will be able to sustain the sublimely modulated delivery of that long speech in the future. But if he does, he's going to go dawn in the record books as having given one of the great performances of Chicago theater.

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