Any play by the late Brian Friel automatically stirs interest, as is the case of the current penetrating production of “The Home Place” by the Irish Repertory Theatre. One is greeted by the inviting, in-depth set of a country house with trees at the side of the stage (design by James Noone). What follows is a collection of colorful performers under the intelligent command of director Charlotte Moore, who is the company’s dedicated, talented and resourceful Artistic Director.
“The Home Place” is set in 1878 in Ballybeg, County Donegal, Ireland, and there are issues involving principle and personal stories encompassing serious emotions. Christopher Gore, widower, landowner, lord of the household, and English-born although having lived most of his life in Ireland, is played elegantly by John Windsor-Cunningham. It is soon clear that he is in love with his much younger housekeeper, Margaret O’Donnell, assertively portrayed by Rachel Pickup.
However, there is a problem. Gore’s son, David (Ed Malone) is also in love with Margaret and she is attracted to him. One especially effective scene occurs with the father drops all inhibitions and gives Margaret a pleading marital proposal. She firmly but kindly rejects him. Margaret has an independent streak and although she is attracted to David, she has trouble making a commitment.
The issue of principal arises when Christopher’s cousin, Dr. Richard Gore, aggressively played by Christopher Randolph, visits with his talkative assistant Perkins (Stephen Pilkington). Their mission involves an attempt to prove the doctor’s racist theory that the Irish are inferior beings and that can be confirmed by taking skull and body measurements.
The process of taking measurements to prove the inferiority theory as inflicted on experiment subjects is mockingly presented, and it is clear that Friel is taking a swipe at the racist concept. Angry rebels turn up in vehement protest at such slanders of the Irish and demand that the doctor and Perkins get the hell out forthwith. Christopher must take a stand.
The supporting cast members handle their parts well. I particularly like the performance of Andrea Lynn Green as Sally Cavanagh, the compliant but feisty maid working under Margaret. Sally has her own romance unfolding.
“The Home Place” may not be one of playwright Friel’s greatest plays, but it succeeds in delineating part of an era with its controversies, as well as presenting flesh and blood characters attempting to sort out their lives. And director Moore exhibits keen understanding of the play and an ability to effectively communicate its essence. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone: 212-2737. Reviewed October 22, 2017.