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Theater Review: ‘The Freedom of the City’

Human rights or politics as usual?

By Diana Barth Created: January 19, 2013 Last Updated: March 29, 2013
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Craig Wroe as a Soldier in Brian Friel’s “The Freedom of the City.” ( Carol Rosegg)

Craig Wroe as a Soldier in Brian Friel’s “The Freedom of the City.” ( Carol Rosegg)

NEW YORK—In this Irish Repertory Theatre revival, playwright Brian Friel poignantly displays a fictionalized account of the tragic murder of three citizens by British soldiers during a civil rights march in Derry, Ireland. The story is interwoven with comments by investigators and quasi-academic lectures on why the poor cannot escape their fate—poverty.

Based on what has come to be known as Bloody Sunday, when 13 civil rights marchers were mowed down by a British regiment in January 1972, the play follows three innocent people: Skinner (Joseph Sikora), Lily (Caroline Seymour), and Michael (James Russell). To escape the tear gas and rubber bullets of the nearby British soldiers, the three dodge into the first open doorway they can find.

Fortuitously, or tragically, however one views the ensuing events, the room in which they find themselves happens to be the mayor’s own parlor.

Scenes switch from past to present and back again. Friel’s skill is such that his work maintains tension even though we may already know the outcome; in fact, his technique may even enhance the poignancy of the play.

As the trio investigates the mayor’s sumptuous quarters, noting for example, the bathroom faucets with golden lion-headed handles and the mayor’s lush red velvet robes, they eventually help themselves to the liquor cabinet and disclose their life stories.

Lily’s story is the most heart-rending: a middle-aged housewife, she has given birth to 11 children and lives with her disabled husband in a two-room flat with no running water. Yet her spirits seldom flag.

The defiant and unemployed Skinner lives by his wits, while Michael, more conservative and firmly law-abiding, is engaged to be married. Both men are in their early 20s.

In the first scene with the Judge (Peter Cormican), he initially conducts what appears to be a fair and objective investigation of the events: Did any of the three victims have weapons? Although various military personnel answer in the negative, by the time the interviews are completed and the play ends, the Judge’s conclusion goes against the innocence of the victims.

In fact, one witness even claims that the three unfortunate subjects exited the mayor’s quarters with guns firing away at the soldiers although no evidence supported his claim.

Rumors fly thick and heavy, with intimations that there may be a large mob of terrorists holed up in the mayor’s quarters. Oblivious to all that is going on outside, the three victims react with mixed feelings when they are warned by loudspeaker that they must exit, hands above their heads, or take the consequences.

(L–R)) Caroline Seymour as Lily, James Russell as Michael, and Joseph Sikora as Skinner appear as three hapless victims. (Carol Rosegg)

(L–R)) Caroline Seymour as Lily, James Russell as Michael, and Joseph Sikora as Skinner appear as three hapless victims. (Carol Rosegg)

Trustful Michael, who knows he has done nothing wrong, feels that nothing bad can happen to them; Skinner holds a more cynical attitude, while Lily indicates a strong uncertainty as to their forthcoming fate.

A photographer records the ultimate gruesome scene, a priest utters a few words into each victim’s ear, sociologist Dr. Dobbs (Christa Scott-Reed) lectures on why the poor can never better their positions in life—something to the effect that children of the poor echo their parents’ attitudes and can never develop enough imagination to see that there are other, and better, possibilities in life.

Yet, the marchers march, to demand their civil rights.

Director Ciarán O’Reilly has orchestrated the demands of this complex and demanding script with a firm hand, integrating the numerous set and lighting changes with the assistance of designer Charlie Corcoran (sets) and Michael Gottlieb (lighting).

Performances are excellent, with Caroline Seymour’s Lily arguably the most moving of the portrayals. Others in the cast are Ciaran Byrne, Craig Wroe, and Evan Zes.

Again, an outstanding offering by the Irish Repertory Theatre with this welcome production by Brian Friel, generally recognized as Ireland’s greatest living playwright.

The Freedom of the City
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or visit www.irishrep.org
Running Time: 2 hours
Closes: Jan. 20

Diana Barth writes and publishes “New Millennium,” an arts publication. For information: www.diabarth@juno.com.

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