‘Autumn Royal’ at the Irish Repertory Theatre
Kevin Barry’s dark comedy Autumn Royal, currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage is a blend of dark and light humor centered around a poignant family dynamic: what do we do with cantankerous, ailing Pa when Ma left the family? Directed by Ciarǻn O’Reilly, the production builds with gradual LOL riot to an ironic conclusion that is also a tragic reflection of human nature now and for all time.,
Barry, an award-winning novelist (most recently Night Boat to Tangier) and short story writer (most recent, That Old Country Music), launched out to write his first play, Autumn Royal. When they heard the news, artistic director Charlotte Moore and director Ciarǻn O’Reilly snapped it up for the live 2021 season after triumphantly producing superb digital productions seen globally during the pandemic.
Starring the comic actor and writer Maeve Higgins as May and company member of the Irish Rep John Keating as her sibling Timothy, the actors show their talents as they conduct the audience on a romp which is both surreal and symbolic. The characters’ journey takes them into past events whose revelations inform their present predicament. As the arc of their situation intensifies because of their emotional angst, we are engaged with the surprising and humorous dialogue and flashbacks as family mysteries that haunt the siblings become exposed. The revelations impact how they determine their way forward as they live with and take care of their father 24/7, while he languishes in his sick bed.
We discover by degrees the conflicts amongst family members, May and Timothy and their parents. Through their commentary and banter with each other, the fine actors reveal reveal the puzzle pieces of their characters’ history. Rapt, we cobble together the threads to divine how and why they continue to live in Cork, Ireland with their father in his house as they care for his most intimate, personal needs. Their father and mother we understand by inference, description and reaction via amazingly suggestive flashbacks rendered with precision by Higgins and Keating. The flashbacks are theatrically presented with the sounds of machinery and projections on the dreary walls of a downstairs room, courtesy of Charlie Corcoran’s set design, Michael Gottlieb’s lighting design, Ryan Rumery’s original music and sound design, Dan Scully’s projection design and Hidenori Nakajo’s sound design.
All elements of spectacle are expertly woven by the creative team to the maximum creating a frightening effect. The theme of parental impact on their children’s emotions and psyche is driven home, but in a unique and stark way as May and Timothy struggle to expurgate or suppress the parental damage that changed the course of their lives.
The images and sounds combine to represent the siblings’ imaginations and personal memories. The revelations are of their unique character; other individuals would flashback to events in a different way. These are Barry’s superior characterizations, so beautifully understood and effected with O’Reilly’s direction and Higgins’ and Keatings’ sensitivity. May’s and Timothy’s stories connect past and present. Their humor, a way to deal with the terrors of parental verbal abuse, arises from misery and torment.
From the dramatically imagistic connections we understand clearly how and why they approach their lives, each other, their parents, their dreams and the possibilities of their future portentous decisions. Interestingly, Barry never presents the mother and father onstage. They are like living ghosts, shadows of their former selves, once a lighthearted family of four before the darkness came.
As the ghostly unseen, the father rains dust down on May and Timothy in the room on the first floor as he bangs out tempestuous ructions in his upstairs bed. The mother, a dark figure wandering up the hill above their house never visits, though she lives somewhere in Cork and remains incommunicado by her own design. However, she once visits her husband in his sickbed and compliments Timothy when she comes downstairs again. Timothy reports this to May after she confronts him about their parents. It is then we learn how May despises their mother, as they note their father’s religious fanaticism.
There is no spoiler alert. The events progress as the siblings try to make cogent decisions about their father’s condition and theirs with humorous effect. To what extent do they determine to fail? To what extent do they interact with each other in combined stasis and nihilism to deliver a result they don’t want? Or do they want it? You will just have to see this superb production to experience the humor, the poignancy and the uncertainty inherent in Barry’s work, prodigiously staged and shepherded by O’Reilly’s direction and Higgins’ and Keating’s wonderful performances.
Barry’s work intrigues with its complexities. The actors make the characters authentic in their hellish prison which they impose on themselves and each other. Gradually, they back themselves in a convenient corner. Their past, ironically suggested with symbolic flashbacks indicating a machinery which catches them up and spins them in circles of torment they cannot break, speaks to all of us. How caught up are we in past hurts delivered by individuals who have long since died? How much do we allow past events to determine how we relate to individuals in the present, who have vastly changed when the circumstances are also different? Or have the relationships we’ve developed over time worsened in revenge, self-punishment and unforgiveness? To what extent do we keep the machinery spinning because we don’t know how to stop it or won’t stop it?
The creative team, the director and the actors have brought to life the tragicomedy of a family in Barry’s powerful play. The production values enhance the themes and bring them home. As we laugh, the impact of May’s and Timothy’s reality drives into our hearts. This is a wonderful production to begin Irish Repertory’s return to live theater. Kudos to all involved. For tickets and times visit their website https://irishrep.org/