NEW YORK—Questions of accountability are raised, debated, and answered, at least to some extent, in Owen McCafferty’s very powerful and somewhat ironically titled drama “Quietly.”
The show was originally presented at the Abbey Theatre in Ireland and is now at The Irish Repertory Theatre.
In a Belfast pub in 2009, bartender Robert (Robert Zawadzki), a recent Polish immigrant, is watching a televised World Cup qualifying match. Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane), one of his regular customers, walks in and the two exchange small talk and good-natured insults.
Jimmy mentions he’ll be meeting another man here shortly and for Robert to pay them no mind.
Meeting this request is easier said than done, however, especially when Ian (Declan Conlon) enters and Jimmy immediately attacks him, stemming from years of anger and bitterness.
Both 52 years of age now, and each showing the wear and tear from the passage of time, Jimmy and Ian were once boyhood pals. One Protestant, one Catholic, both played together and grew up in Belfast when tensions were high between the two groups.
Their friendship was torn apart by a 1974 incident, which occurred when they were only 16. The incident, an explosion from a bomb tossed into this very pub, killed the six men inside.
The present meeting is not over the guilt or innocence of the matter—that was acknowledged long ago—but rather an attempt to understand why the bombing happened.
Robert, for his part, is doing his best to stay out of the way and simply serve drinks when asked, though he soon finds himself called upon to be an active observer of the proceedings.
What emerges is a chilling lesson that illuminates the path of every paramilitary group or oppressive regime since time immemorial. While those who began the battle may understand why they’re fighting, succeeding generations growing up with conflict are likely to follow in the path of their elders, simply because there’s no around to tell them something different.
At 16 years old, Ian was more than eager to take up arms and continue the fight for a seemingly righteous cause. He grossly oversimplified the Northern Ireland situation, to be sure. But to a boy eager to prove he’s ready to be a man with a man’s responsibilities, sometimes a surface understanding is all that’s needed.
The play shows an interesting disconnect between the perspectives of Jimmy and Ian in the present and those in the past. As Ian notes at one point, if he were still that 16-year-old kid, he certainly would never have apologized for his role in past events. To which Jimmy responds, if he were still 16, he wouldn’t have listened to an apology.
It’s also clear that while tendrils stemming from boyhood loyalty may loosen their grip with the passage of years, they never leave one altogether. Ian may be willing to talk about past events, but he refuses to reveal anything about the people with him that day or their current status. Which begs the question, just how much responsibility is he willing to accept if he’s not willing to come completely clean, as it were?
The performances are excellent. O’Kane shows inner rage that inexorably links him to the bombing that’s still fresh in his mind. He is able to recite the names, ages, occupations, and family statuses of the six men who died that day. Yet he knows that to lash out at this late date will probably not make him feel better in the long run.
Conlon, meanwhile, perfectly embodies a man both terminally tired and guarded. He would love to put down his burden but knows the best he can hope for is to get someone to understand him. He reveals facts only because of Jimmy’s repeated prodding—rather ironic, considering Ian was the one who requested this meeting.
Zawadzki nicely underplays his role of Robert, a character who could actually be a star in a play of his own. By the end of the story, we know quite a lot about him, including his family life, why he came to this country, and that he may be juggling relationships with two different women.
Due to the prejudice he faces in Belfast because of his heritage, Robert also serves as sad proof that some things never change, no matter how much time may pass. Hatred simply finds new outlets for its unleashing.
The sound design by Philip Stewart is realistic and the overall direction by Jimmy Fay is strong. However, Alyson Cummins’s set of the pub, while certainly functional, looks a bit too clean to seem real.
Both intriguing and involving, “Quietly” shows both how people can change over the course of time and how, yet, in some ways they don’t really change at all.
Irish Repertory Theatre (in association with The Public Theater)
132 W. 22nd St.
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or IrishRep.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Sept. 25
Judd Hollander is a member of the Drama Desk and reviewer for StageBuzz.com