If you’re looking for a night at the theater steeped in rich language with a masterly cast, Da is just your cup of tea.
Hugh Leonard’s elegy for his Irish family is a comedy and a memory play, flawlessly directed by Colleen Neary McClure, founder of West End Productions. In the playbill Neary McClure dedicates the show to her mother and indicates that the relationship was a loving but difficult one. So too is Charlie’s (Marc Comstock’s) relationship with his Da (Philip J. Shortell), whose funeral he has just attended. When Charlie returns to Da’s rented house to pack up and attend to paperwork, Da’s ghost is still on the premises. Charlie doesn’t seem surprised.
As Shortell portrays him, Da was exasperating and oblivious, emotional and hidebound. Death hasn’t changed him, not one whit. Da and Charlie take us on an intermittent journey back in time, aided by the ghost of Mother (Jessica Osbourne) and Charlie’s younger self (James Patten) and others. The seamless flow of the stage direction makes it easy to tell when and where we are. We watch the life of a family unfold, and discover the frustrations and misunderstandings and humiliations they each endure. It all adds up to how Charlie feels about Da now, and whether those feelings will resolve.
This is not a play about a dysfunctional family, but about a flawed one. Certainly there are scenes that may rattle you: when Da displays his finest Nazi salute to a visitor; when he forbids Mother to go to tea with an ex-suitor and his wife; when Mother natters on about Charlie’s adoption to exalt herself practically to sainthood in the eyes of a stranger. Witnessing scenes from Charlie’s childhood, the audience has a privileged role. We see everyone at their worst, outright mortifying those they love and making us laugh and wince at the same time. And occasionally we see them at their loving best.
Comstock is absolutely marvelous as Charlie. A man of the world now, he has come back from London to attend to his father’s “estate” and briskly wrap things up. (Of course, Da won’t let Charlie have his way.) Through Comstock’s stagecraft, we get to see Charlie keeping company with his father at various times in his own life, having plausible conversations with his wise-cracking younger self, watching while his mother argues with his father and sets the table for tea. I will never forget the transformation that Comstock makes into a seven-year-old Charlie going on a walk with Da. A slight change in stance and the look of childlike wonder that came over him made me believe I was watching the sweet-faced little boy; the cynical man had been shed.
That particular scene is one in which Shortell creates a fully human character in Da. It’s the warmest scene in a deeply warm play and yet it makes the audience laugh, knowingly. If you’re from an Irish family, you’ll get it. Shortell gets Da. He immerses himself in the facts and foibles of this man’s life, a hard life that Da perhaps is too ignorant—or too content?—to experience as such. Whether you want to hug him for raising Charlie or kick him for praising Hitler, Shortell as Da is a fully realized character. I have seen this actor on many stages in many parts and yet I cannot imagine him as anyone other than Da: that is how much he inhabits this role.
Osbourne is a marvel as Mother, bustling around the kitchen set of the past, laying out the tea things and tablecloth, bundling them back up, making good use of the scuttle and the potato bin and the copper kettle. She doesn’t miss a beat as she tongue-lashes Charlie and Da, and butters up the family’s savior, Mr. Drumm (Frederick Ponzlov). It’s no secret that this actor is one of the best around, and in this role her intelligent choices make Mother familiar to us without approaching cliche. Da got lucky.
Ponzlov as Drumm, Charlie’s erstwhile employer and secondary father-figure, plays the part of a man-about-town who is the opposite of Da, giving Charlie another type of role model to ponder. He and the adult Charlie have a poignant scene at the end of the play, and the playwright’s words about Da come through clearly in Ponzlov’s evocative elocution.
The other three characters deserve mention in this terrific ensemble: Tim Riley as Oliver, Charlie’s boyhood friend, shows us a stifled man who was once a fun-loving boy; and Carolyn R. Ward as Mrs. Prynne, Da’s employer of 54 years, gives a dead-on impression of a clueless, entitled rich woman who thinks £25 is quite enough of a retirement bonus. Ashley Reid as Mary Tate (“The Yellow Peril,” or “the town pump” as we might say if we were less than kind) offers a droll performance as Charlie’s first crush, until Da comes along and renders her as a human being in Charlie’s eyes and her own. Again, Neary McClure’s magic touch as director can be seen in these minor-character roles, who thereby become as unforgettable as the major characters.
The set design must be mentioned, as it contributes greatly to the feel of this play. I found the kitchen-set built by Glenn Pepe and its placement off center and somewhat back from the audience gave me a sense that we were watching the action from a vantage point removed from time, as indeed we were. The memory scenes that took place front and center, on the bare stage, are memorable because of the characters and the language, as they should be.
—Stephanie Hainsfurther publishes ABQArts.com.