Return to Steward of Christendom page The Steward of Christendom
by Sebastian Barry

Patent Trader (10/22/99) - Edward Buroughs
North County News (10/27/99) - Kathy Grantham

Patent Trader - Weekend 10/22/99
"The Steward of Christendom" is Time Well Spent
       Thomas Dunne has devoted his life to his country and family. He was always unshakable in knowing that he made all the right decisions. But now at age 75, locked up in a dreary mental institution, he endlessly struggles within his swirling mind to pinpoint what happened to his life. This personal setting of Sebastian Barry's impossible to categorize play, "The Steward of Christendom," is challenging in itself. But Mr. Barry adds greater issues to explore.
       The play is set in the newly independent Ireland of 1932 and Thomas Dunne was the last supervisor of Dublin's, crown-loyal, metropolitan police force.
       Clad in long underwear, Dunne shifts from striking clarity to imagined reenactment of key events in his life. He spins long passages of both image-filled, lyrical stories and chaotic, rambling observations. In memory scenes distinguished by soft lighting, his three daughters and one son appear on stage. In real time scenes of harsh light, two prison guards establish the terms of his current sad existence. Throughout, glimpses of family squabbles, hopes and tragedy mesh with the rise of Irish revolution like pieces of a puzzle struggling to assemble themselves.
       This complicated tableau is exactly the type of play that the Bluestone Actors Project and its head, director Cara Caldwell Watson, seem to revel in tackling. That's fortunate for audiences at the Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls, for otherwise this demanding work would doubtfully ever be staged at a suburban theater.
       It is not an easy evening, but a worthy one. It helps to have some familiarity with Irish history as the author is a young Irishman and he rightly takes his country's background for granted in this play, written in 1995. For some of us not so educated Americans, the program includes a helpful, concise abstract of the political context that centers on the surrender of Dublin Castle to Michael Collins in 1922. But, that said, the play truly focuses on the human impact of events, leaving the political arguments to others.
       Always at that center is Thomas Dunne. It's a prodigious role for any actor. Angus Hepburn does not just play Dunne, he creates a fully dimensioned character who is at times painful to observe. Moving quickly from nursery rhymes to a defense of the Queen, his portrayal spans decades with the turn of his head. He conveys the sense that every moment of a man's life is always with him and that perhaps only the seemingly mentally unbalanced are free to experience the essence of that thought.
       As Dunne's three daughters, Priscilla Squiers, Sarah Shea, and Gina Edmond reveal the tight and comforting family life that he worked hard to create. Dunne says of children, "in your manner of your treatment of them, lies your own salvation." The actors allow their brief scenes to move with ease from seriousness to comic, painting in a vision of a loving environment now shattered with no one at fault.
       Ms. Squiers' beautifully understated playing of the middle daughter, scarred by polio and left alone to deal with her increasingly unbalanced father, creates the desire to know more of her life. Ms. Shea, as the determinedly traditional older daughter, and Ms. Edmond, as the risk-taking younger daughter, break their father's heart in turn with unavoidable actions.
       In Dunne's current real world of the mental hospital, Kathleen K. Gould and John Adair, give personality to the cold institution through their portrayal of attendants Mrs. O'Dea and Smith. Ms. Gould's expressive face shows Mrs. O'Dea as warmly protective of her charge as she tries to make him new clothes. Mr. Adair's orderly walks the fine line between enforcer of calm and quiet and someone resisting a personal connection. He is especially moving when reading a treasured letter that Dunne shares with him, written by Dunne's young son in the trenches of World War I shortly before his death. The fact that these disparate scenes and concepts meld is a credit to director Watson. By keeping each of these characters firmly in their own time and world, she keeps the focus on Dunne's interior thoughts and the value of a single life.
       Peter Petrino's lighting scheme is as complex as has ever been attempted at the Schoolhouse and is critical to the play's integrity.

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North County News 10/27/99
"The Steward of Christendom" reflects the family of man
By Kathy Grantham
       Writhing on the hard, thin mattress is Thomas Dunne, bouncing in and out of memories and madness at the Baltinglass County Home in Ireland. And so "The Steward of Christendom" is introduced at the Schoolhouse Theater.
       In its final week - Thursday, October 28 thru Sunday, October 31, the Bluestone Actors Project is directed by Cara Caldwell Watson. 'A new play, it was first produced in America at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, opening for a brief run in January 1997.
       "The Steward..." is Irish playwright Sebastian Barry's play about Thomas Dunne, a great-grandfather he never knew, the last chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, an organization devoted to the British Crown. However, it. was. disbanded after the Irish war of independence of the 1920s, and Dunne was considered by some to be a traitor, his life in shreds. The play opens on a once vital man, now broken, both mentally and physicaIly, hanging on to a sliver of reason, after seven years of confinement in the county home.
       Alone in a barren room, barely clothed and in little control of his faculties, Dunne, at 75, reenacts scenes from his past, finding solace in the memory of his three daughters and a son who died in World War I. Barry writes about raising children, particularly fathers and sons "what it could be to be a father, even a bad father, an accused father, which may be the only sort of father there is."
       A consummate actor from Verplanck, Angus Hepburn (Thomas Dunne) pans gold in this grueling role. On stage at every moment, rocking in his mean bed like a baby or boldly cutting into the curtain of memory, and performing in countless vignettes of family life with his children. Hepburn masters the shading of a soliloquy, ending the play not with a bang, but with a silence so loud, it reverberates, leaving the audience momentarily stunned.
       Hepburn doesn't pretend to be an old codger, neither does he look like a septuagenarian. When he retreats into childhood, crying like a baby, or re-enacting his memories, he doesn't employ acting tricks to camouflage a retreat to youth. Presented on stage clad only in soiled long winter underwear, there is no time to pity him because he moves so quickly between past and present.
       Nagging at his soul is the fact that now he's an outcast in the Ireland he loves so dearly. Dunne had risen as high as a Catholic could, and perceived himself as the steward of Queen Victoria's England. He was caught in the turmoil of Ireland's struggle for independence. That was the end of a grand life for Dunne, a 45-year career in ashes.
       Bitter and disappointed, Dunne's daughter Annie has withstood a lifetime of scant affection and criticism from her father. Now that he is old, and she cannot control his erratic moods or give him the custodial care he requires, she has him admitted to the county, home. At, times, he's a raving lunatic or sweet as a lamb.
        The audience encounters Dunne as Mr. Smith (John Adair) arrives to bathe him, since the patient in his crusted underwear "smells like pork." Frightened to death by 'Black Jim,' his nickname for the gruff attendant who strips him bare, he clings to himself; it's all he has. Perhaps working in a mental ward robs the paid staff of their humanity at times.
       On the eve of a costume party in town, some time later, a genial Mr. Smith appears in Dunne's room outfitted like Texas cowboy with leather boots, jeans, red kerchief and wide-brimmed hat "Who am I?" he asks, twirling a six shooter, imitating Gary Cooper. Of course, the old man thinks of a family named Cooper living nearby; he never attended the movies.
       But Smith's changed demeanor is striking. Was it the costume that allowed this moment of kindness? The respectful cowboy even offers to read aloud to Dunne a treasured letter from his son written at the front. Yet, this is 'Black Jim, who scrubbed down a filthy lunatic tic, while declaring, "I'd a mind once I join my brother on the Hudson River. He has a whale flensing business there. Would that I had joined Jack, I say when I have to wash down an old bugger like you. I would rather flense whales and that's a stinking task, I'm told."
       Kathleen Kavanagh Gould (Mrs. O'Dea) is the practical nurse on duty in the mental ward; her kind, patience with Dunne is a thing of beauty.
        The supporting cast -- Peter Frost (Matt and a recruit), Connor Frost (Willie), Priscilla Squiers (Annie), Sarah Shea (Maud) and Gina Edmond (Dolly) - paints a portrait of one family with all its frailties and lost opportunities to love one another.

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