Brian Friel may be the most overrated living playwright, but the Irish Repertory Theatre is making a convincing if modest case for him with their revival of The Freedom of the City. Following the deaths of three Irish protestors, the city of Londonderry tries to make sense of what happened. They are lionized by a balladeer (Clark Carmichael) and damned by an English judge (John C. Vennema). A local priest (Ciaran Byrne) frames their struggle in political and teleological terms, while an American professor (Christa Scott-Reed) turns them into an illustration of a sociological phenomenon. These songs, dialogues, and lectures are interspersed throughout the play as we see what really happened when several low-level patriots fled tear gas and accidentally found themselves inside the mayor’s parlor.
In fact, Michael (James Russell), Lily (Cara Seymour), and Skinner (Joseph Sikora) have virtually nothing in common. The first is a revolutionary in the mold of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, the second a housewife and cleaning lady who admits to having no head, and the third a lifelong punk. But they end up trapped together and pass the time speaking about their lives, arguing about politics and, at least in the case of Skinner, goofing off. As Michael tries unsuccessfully to coach the others about the most effective ways of engaging with the British, Lily babbles about her children and “the chairman” and Skinner dances around in the mayor’s robes, smoking his cigars and drinking his liquor.
Ultimately, Mr. Friel is arguing that these endlessly complex situations resist our desire to explain them—or explain them away. Michael is no more a terrorist than he is a war hero, and Skinner could hardly be described as a Christ-like figure engaged in some sort of biblical conflict. This is certainly a timely lesson. The Israel-Palestine conflict, of course, is our contemporary equivalent, and we in America tend to choose sides with the kind of fervor that excludes rational thinking. How else could Norman Finkelstein, a professor who studied under Noam Chomsky, praise Hezbollah while damning the IDF? Though the events of The Freedom of the City take place two years before Bloody Sunday, the program reminds us that those murders have only just gone to trial—ignoring and then atoning for the crimes of our national past is indeed a painful and lengthy process.
Mr. Russell, Ms. Seymour, and Mr. Sikora are all adequate in their parts—neither stellar nor dreadful—though unfortunately director Ciarán O’Reilly has played down the comedy, resulting in a tone of static moral outrage. Mr. Friel’s script allows our shock to be augmented by a series of funny scenes, the laughter proving all the more devastating by the context. Skinner’s zaniness is clearly a defense mechanism, a means of repelling others to avoid getting hurt, but Mr. Sikora is not given the space to explore this. His comedic moments are passed by as if they were awkward hurtles, and even when he dons the ridiculous red robes and bicorne (google it), there is an uncomfortable sense of staleness.
Furthermore, it should be noted that the professor, Dr. Dodds, is written as a man, and the recasting of Ms. Scott-Reed smells faintly of sexist stereotypes. She wears a long skirt and a pouch around her neck, her jewelry jangling as she gives her speeches—looking like a San Francisco faith healer just off the street, we get the feeling that Mr. O’Reilly equates femininity with triviality, underlining the professor’s ivory tower ignorance by making her a ridiculous woman.
Still, the merits outweigh the faults here, and The Freedom of the City is the best show the Irish Rep has produced in about a year. Unlike the abysmal Dancing at Lughnasa, this is Mr. Friel eschewing sentimentality in favor of insight.