One way to reconcile being haunted by a past that is anchored to memories of people and places which have long disappeared, is to connect them to the present in the hearts and minds of those interested in their elucidation. Gabriel Byrne accomplishes this with his superb solo performance of his memoir Walking With Ghosts, adapted for the stage and directed by Lonny Price. The ghosts of Byrne’s past come to life through this humorous and poignant one-man show, currently at the Music Box Theater in a presentation that runs with one intermission.
In Walking With Ghosts Byrne captures the lyrical Irish rhythms of language as he touches upon the innocence, beauty, awkwardness, fear and grace in his childhood, growing up in Walkinstown, Dublin, Ireland before he left for the seminary in England at 11 years old to answer God’s call to be a priest. Through monologues, and evocative dialogue humorously peppered with the accents, voices and gestures of his parents, town characters, friends, a noxious teacher, even a brief encounter with writer Brendan Beehan, Byrne conveys the circumstances which contributed to forming his character and inspired him to expand his dramatic sensibilities.
These burgeoned into a globally renown career as a stage, film and TV actor as well as a film director, screenwriter and producer. Byrne has been twice nominated for a Tony award, has been nominated for Emmys and has won a Golden Globe and two Satellite Awards to name a few of the accolades he’s received for his work over the years. To understand the public, artistic Byrne, see his work and become acquainted with how he grapples with each genre, sometimes wearing a different hat than that of the actor.
To understand the private Byrne, Walking With Ghosts provides that portrait with illuminating, enjoyable glimpses into his childhood. He includes profound excavations that are personal and trenchant experiences which he relates as a forthright and raw expose coming “to know the world.” And as a coda to his successful career, which he leaps over and saves for another time (for there are no ghosts there), he recalls his parents’ humorous responses to his celebrity and ruefully admits to finally hearing their voices after they are gone.
In this third of his Broadway outings, Byrne showcases his remarkable talents. He appears onstage alone with minimal spectacle, directed lighting, spare props, and unadorned in the same clothing throughout. Indeed, Byrne is the transformative vehicle we focus upon, riveted with his immersive storytelling as both narrator and character, the elusive ghost boy, who has attempted to dodge and forget individuals in his past, but now stops and reflects about them lovingly, starkly for a few stirring hours with a ready, curious audience.
With lush, evocative descriptions and acutely crafted details, Byrne introduces his dreamscape and forages bravely into his past. He recalls his return to his vastly changed hometown overrun by development, where he feels like an intruder and claims himself “emigrant, immigrant and exile.” When he invites us in to receive his ghostly re-imaginings in haunted environs where ghost boy is running, we understand it is an incomplete and picaresque rendering. As in scripture, we see through a glass darkly without enough illumination and clarity to process everything. Yet what we see, hear and appreciate is from the depths of Byrne’s heart and private revelations bravely embodied so that we may identify and receive the gift he has humbly given to us.
Symbolically, the set design by Sinéad McKenna, features a back wall that is an artfully fractured mirror in need of repair, rather like a soul that has weathered the shocks and batterings evidenced by the damage but still holds together as one piece. McKenna’s lighting reflects a blur of colors and upturns Byrne’s shadow, so that it is an upside down pendant. It reminds one of the Tarot Card, the Hanged Man, which, in one interpretation indicates sacrifice and surrender.
Byrne’s remembrances structured in a fleeting chronology, like all memories, are vivid paintbrush images that strike then evanesce in humor and empathy. Other times his tellings sear into our minds, especially if we’ve experienced something similar. Throughout and together, Byrne’s recollections are a meditation on life that unfolds with beauty, synergy and power. To attempt to define one event or another as pivotal to his life remains an uncertain guess and requires thought. For all the memories he selects fashion who Byrne is from clearly apparent career profile and beyond to where the lines blur as son, brother, religious acolyte, amateur actor, friend and so much more. Thus, Byrne’s ghost boy leaps into characterizations and stories using themes and threads of ideas rather than a linear historical accounting.
Some recollections are unspooled in anectedotes and many of them land with humor. Enjoyable are his remembrances about his mother, i.e. her comments about his birth and his mystical naming received through an angelic visitation. Then there’s the soft, comforting recollection of his mother singing him a lullaby and his kneeling in prayer with his invisible guardian angel, who he knows stands near to protect him through the night. And there’s the memory of his father coming home from work as a cooper. Right afterward, he begs his father to ride on his knee playing “horsey, horsey,” his favorite game as father and son show affection for one another.
More acute, prickly memories move to the influence of the Catholic Church teachings and his first day of school when Byrne’s mother accompanies him and delivers him over to a formidable nun whose waxy hand he takes. Funny are his impressions of Christ on the cross, bleeding and naked except for a “nappy,” and his knowledge about heaven as he gives us his child’s take on the soul, limbo and the holy ghost as a pigeon. The latter prompts a sister to rebuke him, “It’s a dove not a common dirty pigeon off the street.”
And after recalling episodes of his days at school, the floodgates open and other aspects of the world enter. There’s his mother’s friend Mrs. Gordon, an iconic, crone-like figure, who enjoys frightening him so he wets the bed at night. And the joy of the thrilling Bicentennial Fair which is the epitome of a child’s play-land. He enjoins the exciting sights, sounds and feelings about the rides, candy, food and fireworks Irish-style, all of which Byrne relates in vivid technicolor.
The import of religion to his family is as palpable as open flame to flesh. From humorous quips about mortal sins to how Jesus could be in a wafer and where he goes when you swallow him, he discusses Holy Communion. We calculate his poignant revelation preparing for this sacred day. First his mother takes him to tea at the Shelbourne Hotel, then on to famous Clery’s for his outfit. We note the family’s struggle with finances and flinch when he is ashamed at his mother counting out the coins to pay the bills. Equally touching is Byrne’s description gorging on candy and sweets that he doesn’t have very often and that he buys from his Holy Communion donations. He becomes so sick he soils his expensive outfit and hides in the bushes for hours fearful his mother with be angry with him. When she finds him, he discovers she loves and soothes him despite ruining what costs so much, an item that means so much, but they can’t really afford.
Byrne’s humor and enthusiasm extends to a meditation on his beloved grandmother who took him to the “pictures” and inspired a love of film. His description of a brutal and abusive teacher in his elementary school is only ameliorated when students get revenge then stick together and don’t confess, despite the pressure to do so. These and other events amass the ghosts that walk with Byrne in his childhood that fade. However, there is one ghost that haunts him for much of his life.
Enchanted by the idea that God might be calling him to be a priest, he goes to England to the seminary where he is happy. Enjoying being in England and getting away from home, he believes he has found a place of refuge. He is not hit or humiliated by the other kids as he was in Ireland. Also, he plays football and he makes easy friends. However, this changes on a dime. Byrne’s description of how the priest who favors him, gives him wine to drink, and absolves him of any impure thoughts he might have uses these sly techniques to insinuate and initiate a predatory sexual attack. The dialogue is pointed as Byrne assumes the accent and soothing demeanor of the priest. The event is so clearly disclosed and so classic of sexual predators, we shouldn’t be surprised. However, we are shocked and horrified. Byrne’s expose of the Catholic Church and the priest reveals the turning point in his life. The glorious faith that his parents believed in and lovingly shared with him in hope, his naming brought by an angelic visitation, his innocence and his desire to be holy is devastated and destroyed.
Years later after he’s found himself, Byrne shares that he located the priest via the internet and calls him, perhaps searching within to forgive the priest and forgive himself. On the phone he can’t bring himself to tell the elderly retiree with a poor memory in a retirement home that he wishes hell on him. In a confused daze, the priest thanks him for calling. He hangs up; empathy overtakes him. Throughout the the rest of the play, it is clear that this event contributed to Byrne’s choices after he left the seminary. He expresses the incident so vividly, it is indelible, irrevocable. That is the keen point Byrne makes through understatement without ranting or passion.
What happened to him happened throughout the global Catholic Church then and most probably is still happening today. However, if one doesn’t understand faith, religion and the power of a culture and family that holds God dear to them and has for centuries, the ghostly impact of this priest on Byrne’s life will be completely lost or misunderstood. As a reverential dramatic moment, the scene is incredibly rendered by Byrne. We sense that this raw incident he expresses not only for himself, but for every other person who has been sexually abused by a cleric whether Catholic, protestant, New Age, Hindi, etc.
In Act II we understand how the events in the seminary emotionally jack knife and send Byrne wandering away from his association with the Catholic Church to atheism. After he returns home from the seminary (Does he tell his parents what happened?), a series of unenlightened jobs that worsen (plumber, dishwasher, toilet attendant), keep him foundering until eventually, his friend suggests he join a non professional repertory company of actors. They are so welcoming, it is then he finally feels he belongs and is at home. As he outlines how he does various parts with his actor friends, a lively take on how each of his colleagues takes their bows is smashing. It is one of the more exuberant stagings by Price that segues into Byrne’s career moving off to the Focus Theatre and sojourns into professional acting and subsequent humorous disasters until he begins to support himself.
The second act has two other significant reverential moments recalled by Byrne. His sister Marian who he was close to pursues an acting career in London. However, though no one can explain how, she ends up in a mental asylum and they call Byrne to pick her up and take her home. What he describes, we’ve seen in films and we shouldn’t be surprised. Yet, his recollections are vivid and disturbing. Again, we are shocked by his incredible rendering of the asylum and the treatments she receives to “make her well” but which don’t. Byrne’s metaphor for her, “a wildflower in a crumbling wall,” expresses the culture that has caught her, but one in which she still provides beauty. However, the stigmatized by her mental illness, that beauty is not recognized. Thus, we empathize with his emotional response when he receives a call that she has died unexpectedly. She’s in her early thirties. She is one more ghost who haunts him.
Byrne’s episode with Richard Burton is not only fascinating, it, too, is heart-breaking. Drinking is a part of the culture in Ireland as it is in Wales where Richard Burton became addicted. It also is embedded in the culture of the entertainment industry which is a destroyer of artists. Byrne shares the time in Venice when he and Burton are working together and become drinking buddies. The occasion segues to Byrne’s recognition that he’s an alcoholic and must seek help which he does relaying he’s 24 years sober. He reminds us and himself that he has made it out of that hell, whereas Burton died with alcohol crystals coating his spine at his death. Once again Byrne’s understatement and lively reminiscences are the tip of the iceberg. Below are the miserable trials, the pain of alcoholism, the hangovers, the physical and emotional devastation and looming death. But this doesn’t need to be spoken and Byrne is not preachy, just thankful. The warning to others is clear. It’s possible to come out of it, if you get help.
A quick note about Sinéad Diskin’s music and sound which floats in and out unobtrusively. Like the structure of Walking With Ghosts, it is thematic and threaded, conveying the elusive emotions that substantiate Byrne’s episodic meditations. With the prosceniums frames that sometimes are gold other times red, etc., the mirror effect is enhanced as they appear in perspective to diminish in the distance suggesting the motif of fading away and evanescence. Such is the nature of memory that erupts and disappears unless one keeps it alive in another repository which Byrne does evoking their ghostly presence each night on stage. He identifies our part in this process or reconciliation in his final statement. The ghosts he was walking with are in him. He is no longer running. He has made peace with himself and them.
This must-see production is a heartfelt encomium to Byrne’s past spoken with the lilt of poetic feeling that is never overdone, but is as light as mists that burn off in daylight. For tickets and times go to their website: https://gabrielbyrneonbroadway.com/