In the untamed wilderness that is the mind’s eye of Thomas Dunne (Brian Dennehy), a faded public figure does battle with the truculent decisions of his past. A patient in a mental home in Baltinglass, Ireland, Dunne is often chided for his boisterous outburst, for which he is either beaten into silence by orderly Smith (James Lancaster) or lured into calmness by nurse Mrs. O’Dea (Mary-Pat Green) and promises of a new suit with gold thread. Barring visitations from the home staff, which seem to be limited to meal times and administering disciplinary measures, Dunne is left to teeter between memory and delusion, day in, day out.
As the local constable in a small town, Dunne’s job as the commander of the Dublin Metropolitan Police made him the Irish man presenting / protecting British interests on Irish soil, and subsequently a less than popular figure in his Irish community. His career with the DMP bore heavily on his three daughters – painfully practical, hump-back Annie (Abby Wilde), the oldest Maud (Kalen Harriman), and the youngest and most beloved of the three Dolly (Carmela Corbett).
The burden of being Dunne’s daughters weighs heavily on all of the and in every remembrance; the eldest and youngest are each scheming to find a way to lead. Dunne also frequently mourns the lost of his only son Willie (Grant Palmer), whom he sees as a child outfitted in World War I combat gear.
Annie is the only daughter who actually comes to visit Dunne in the institution. Beyond that, the old man is doomed to his part in Ireland’s tumultuous era of civil war and unrest, pleading his case to the shadows in his mind.
The Steward of Christendom is an extremely difficult story to follow. Sticking with the protagonist through his rambling monologues would challenge the patience of the most devoted Dennehey fan. The disjointed delirium through which most of the story plays out contains some wonderful imagery for lacks the basic element of any drama: a question. What do these character want? What should the audience want for them?
The play undoubtedly sheds light on a little known person from Irish history. The story engages an uncomfortable yet familiar family dynamic - between siblings and between father and children. Yet there is no hint of genuine affection from the children, nor any clear reason for their lack of devotion. Contrastly, there is no reason why adult children should stay their aging parent, especially since they are ultimately ill-equip to manage the encroaching mental illness.
Beyond a family history, there really is no point of entry for those who are not predisposed to have a historical interest. There is no clear protagonist because no one in this story Is especially likable. We have pity for Dunne, but that is largely fueled by a sense of obligation that he is losing his battle with mental illness.
There is definite poetry and wonderfully lyrical moments buried in the disjointed monologues of The Steward of Christendom, for which playwright Sebastian Barry is to be congratulated. Likewise, Brian Dennehy takes on the herculean task of tackling the lengthy two-act work, delivering nearly a dozen monologues that are both textually and emotional challenging. However, for me, the show was a task of endurance and tenacity, rather than an evening of entertainment or enlightenment.
The Steward of Christendom is running now through January 5, 2014 at
Mark Taper Forum
at the Music Center
downtown Los Angeles
135 N. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Photos by: Craig Schwartz