Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Irish Rep and the IAW&A Eugene O'Neill Award

You begin something without knowing what you’re really getting into. Twenty or more years later, you look back and discover that it has defined your life. Any awards that come are at best icing on the cake. It’s the work that counts and that’s always been the ethic at the Rep.

Nonetheless, Gabriel Byrne will present Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly of the Irish Repertory Theatre the Irish Writers and Artists annual Eugene O’Neill Award on Monday 17th October at Rosie O’Grady’s in Midtown Manhattan.

And what work they’ve accomplished! Armed with the bare bones of an idea and fueled by a desire to do things their way they’ve come to define Irish theatre in New York.

They jumped in off the deep end with The Plough and The Stars back in 1988. I’ve always loved O’Casey, his Protestant working class sensibility strips away much of the sanctimonious green paint and shows us post-1916 Dublin as it really was.

There was a joy to the Rep’s first outing and an energy that radiated off the stage. From that moment on things changed for Irish actors in New York. The Rep meant business and would mount a full season every year, come hell, high water or whatever dollars needed raising.

A theatre is only as strong as the ambition - or madness - of its founders. Even by theatre standards, Charlotte and Ciarán were an unusual partnership.

Charlotte positively glows with a refined theatricality. Still, this woman from the farmlands of Southern Illinois has a will of steel - a legacy no doubt bequeathed by her emigrant Wexford forebears. Razor-sharp and beautiful she had reached the actor’s Rubicon – continue manifesting someone else’s vision or do it your way, aka become a director!

Ciarán matched her in intensity but was also blessed with that particular native-born Irish quality – the quiet determination to follow your dream despite, or even because of, the begrudgers.

To my mind this Cavan man has always shared a unique trait with David Byrne of Talking Heads, he improves with every outing – be it acting or directing.

With such different personalities at the helm, the Rep must have had some humdinger early production meetings before a modus operandi was worked out.

Their first production that knocked my socks off was Tom Murphy’s violent A Whistle in the Dark. The ructions sparked onstage by a dysfunctional Irish emigrant family were so alarming that, in the pub afterwards, one stood back and allowed the actors time to shed the sheer aggression of their characters.

Still, I felt the Rep really came of age with Philadelphia Here I Come. Such was the truth in their rendering of Brian Friel’s masterpiece I swore never to see the play again. It had hit too close - this tale of a father emotionally unable to ask his son to remain at home.

And the Rep has done it all so professionally. Back in 2002 I wrote music for their Playboy of the Western World and was thrilled just to have the opportunity to weave Synge’s brilliant intent into rhythms and melodies.

On opening night while lost in the magic unfolding onstage, a check was slipped into my pocket – unasked for and unexpected. But that’s the Rep for you - providing a safe haven for those dreamers who have no other option but to test the rocky waters of theatre.

How fitting then that they should receive an award that also celebrates America’s greatest playwright, Eugene O’Neill, the turbulent narrowback who insisted he could recreate the universe onstage through the characters in his own family.

The Rep have never made such claims but every week in their beautiful playhouse on West 22th Street they fashion a world of dreams, ideas and magic, that take us far beyond this threadbare Facebook universe we inhabit.

They have an appointment with their own destiny on Oct. 20th when they tackle the luminous, but thorny, Dancing At Lughnasa. Miss it and it’s your loss.

But before then come and celebrate, Ciarán O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore, two remarkable people, at Rosie O’Grady’s, Manhattan Club, 800 7th Ave/52nd Street at 6pm, Monday 17th Oct. For tickets and information go to http://www.i-am-wa.org

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