Actor/director Ciaran O’Reilly owes playwright Brian Friel a lot, it turns out. The producing director of New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre, O’Reilly is among the cast of a new revival of Friel’s 1979 drama Aristocrats
(opening at Irish Rep on Jan. 25). And as he thinks back over the many Friel plays he’s either acted in or directed, he suddenly remembers the first.
O’Reilly was relatively fresh off the boat from the Emerald Isle and not yet even in his 20s when he was corralled by coincidence into the Irish Arts Center’s 1978 production of Friel’s Freedom of the City
“I happened to be in a bar across the street, and some guy hadn’t shown up for tech rehearsal,” O’Reilly recalls. The part into which he was quickly pressed was that of an official who sat and gave evidence at a trial, which allowed O’Reilly to hold the script onstage as if it were evidence. “I’d never acted before, so that’s what I thought acting was at first—giving evidence. Which it is, in a way.”
Not long after, he met Charlotte Moore, who directed him in Hugh Leonard’s play Summer
, and in 1988 he and Moore co-founded Irish Rep, with a mission to produce plays by Irish and Irish-American writers. Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!
opened the fledgling company’s second season, and Friel's Making History
opened the third. Apart from a more recent revival of Philadelphia
, Friel hasn’t been represented with productions by Irish Rep, whose programming has ranged from the obvious—bedrock works by O’Casey, Synge, Behan—to the further afield, such as a recent revival of Ibsen’s The Master Builder
with a new translation by Frank McGuinness, or a hit run of the musical Meet Me in St. Louis
, which squeaked in on the strength of just one Irish-American character (with a song about it, natch).
“We certainly try to mix it up by doing dramas, musicals, plays,” O’Reilly says. “Our mission is to present work that has a connection to Irish and Irish-American cultures—and other cultures, as well. We put that in so we have a little leeway.”
That leeway has extended to casting, too.
“We used to put in our mission that our plays would be ‘performed professionally with a native understanding,’ ” O’Reilly recalls. That was another way of saying that Irish Rep was to be a company where artists of Irish descent could find work. “In the early days, yes, it was created to provide a place for Irish actors to do their work. And it’s still fantastic in some cases to get the real deal, when you cast someone who just has all the nuances, not somebody trying to be Irish, and you can just get on with the play.”
It’s his work on the other side of the table, O’Reilly suggests, that may have softened his Irish-only stance.
“Certainly, when I’m wearing a director’s hat, if somebody comes in and knocks my socks off, I want to hire whoever will do that, no matter where they’re from. The best actor gets the job.”
depicts an Irish family gathering uneasily for the wedding of its youngest daughter to the local vegetable seller. The setting is Friel’s usual fictional town of Ballybeg, in a crumbling mansion lorded over by a dying patriarch, the scion of a well-heeled Catholic clan that has fallen on hard times. O’Reilly plays a man who married into the family from a lower social position—his grandmother had been a maid in the family manse.
“Basically, it’s a rundown old mansion that no one can afford to keep,” O’Reilly explains. “My character sees its value in terms of what it means to the country, as an institution that people looked up to; he’s saying, ‘This is something that we all loved, and now we’re allowing it to go away.’ ”
For other family members, though, the house is an ambiguous keepsake. “It holds perhaps not the most pleasant memories for them,” O’Reilly concedes. “The father who raised them was very severe, and for them it’s still a terrifying place.”
In short, O’Reilly says with a chuckle, “It’s a dysfunctional Irish family with a capital D. But as always with Brian Friel, it’s so humorous and lyrical and has such a ring of truth to it. You get to know this family as if you’ve been around them for weeks.”
If Friel’s treatment of class, family and property ring a certain bell among seasoned theatregoers, it’s not a coincidence.
“It’s very Chekhovian, because Brian is a huge fan of Chekhov—he would tell you that’s his role model,” O’Reilly says. This comparison highlights an aspect of Friel’s work that ensures it will likely be revived as long as there are theatres, Irish-identified or not: “It does feel as if you could set this story anywhere, and yet it is very specific. It can certainly be interpreted for a wider audience—it has a universality about it. Though he wrote it in the ’70s, it’s what’s happening today. Old institutions are sort of going away, aren’t they?”
The Irish Rep, for one, is an institution that shows no signs of going away any time soon.
Click here for more information about Aristocrats.