Body Politic Theatre

Tom Murphy’s flawed but riveting drama A Whistle in the Dark is all about Irish violence, but there’s nary a word about the IRA or British imperialism. The reason is that Murphy’s play, written in 1961, is set in the 1950s, a period of relative calm in Irish-British politics.

But Murphy’s exploration of the Irish psyche is every bit as timely now as, say, Ourselves Alone, Anne Devlin’s drama about anti-British guerrillas, at Bailiwick Repertory. As Murphy shows, the roots of the violence that haunts Ireland, though exacerbated by legitimate anger at British policy, lie deep in Ireland’s tribal history, in the twisted love-hate engendered by centuries of clannish patriarchy. It’s no accident that the dominant theme in Whistle–a person’s struggle to resolve the simmering, ultimately unresolvable conflicts he/she feels with his/her father–is the same as in Ourselves Alone, or for that matter in Malachy and Frank McCourt’s anecdotal comedy A Couple of Blaguards at the Royal-George, and certainly in J.M. Synge’s classic The Playboy of the Western World, in its original form and in the Court Theatre’s current Trinidadian adaptation, Playboy of the West Indies. The hero of Playboy resolves his problems by bashing his father in the head with a spade; no such conclusive solution exists for the tormented protagonist of the grim, sometimes brutal Whistle.

The action revolves around the Carney family: Michael, the “Dada,” and his five grown sons. The four eldest boys have, some time back, left their small-town Irish home to find work in the English industrial town of Coventry–an ironic choice of locale, since Michael Jr., the oldest son and the first to leave home, has systematically been “sent to Coventry”–i.e., been isolated–from the rest of the family for most of his life.

Michael’s sin is that he has no taste for the bullish brawling that his Dada and brothers have adopted as a way of life. His intelligence, his yearning for a peaceful existence, is seen by the others resentfully, as a rebuke. But rather than wash their hands of each other, Michael and his brothers hold on, bonded, Murphy suggests, not just by family ties but by a fateful inevitability. (Murphy’s model for Whistle is clearly ancient Greek tragedy, though, unlike that form, Murphy places his violence center stage.)

Several years back, Michael moved to Coventry and took an English wife. The other brothers have gradually followed him across the Irish Sea, bringing with them a thuggish penchant for violence and criminality that is all too useful in their new home, where they must fend off attacks by British whites and immigrant blacks. Their worst battles, however, are with other Irishmen–including their own brothers.

Now Dada himself is coming to Michael’s home, bringing with him the baby of the family, young Desmond; with words and weapons, the junior and senior Michaels face off to do battle for Desmond’s loyalty–Dada urging the youth to join his brothers in England, Michael beseeching the lad to return home and make a fresh start. All three are the losers in the play’s shocking conclusion.

At its core, Whistle is Tom Murphy’s vision of the Irish male soul in all its conflict. The quintessential Irishman is in love with the rude eloquence of a centuries-old oral tradition, yet filled with fury at the impotence of language and drawn instead to the visceral energy of fists; he’s simultaneously worshipful and contemptuous of women and fearful of but defiant to the English; eager to live in safety and peace, but brainwashed from boyhood by the militant credo of the previous–every previous–generation. “A man must fight back,” Dada repeatedly urges. “Back to the wall and keep swinging.” But Dada himself is a cowardly drunk who hides when the going gets tough–as to his regret Michael angrily points out. That, too, is part of the Irish masculine legacy: the father must always be “honored,” never challenged, never even left open for challenge, and so both father and sons participate in a ritual in which an “outsider” is targeted in order to deflect attention from real problems. In the Carney family, where roles are preserved at the expense of loyalties, that “outsider” can just as easily be a family member as not.

Murphy’s play, though haunting, is not without its flaws; the violence that concludes the play goes too far, muddling the psychological drive of the narrative. But Murphy’s staging of the work in its midwest premiere at the Body Politic is brilliant. As playwright and director, Murphy shifts fluidly between domestic naturalism and expressionistic stylization–appropriate to a story about one family as a larger archetype. The actors’ movements perfectly capture the spatial dynamic of this close but conflicted family, periodically evolving into a series of striking tableaux; similarly, the language shifts between everyday colloquialism and a weirdly fragmented poetic style that echoes a culture that has lost touch with itself. Michael Sokoloff’s fight choreography bristles with ferocious energy. The play’s mysterious quality is superbly complemented by Jeff Bauer’s set–a rundown kitchen surrounded by an abstract, scaffoldlike frame that evokes a prison or a cage–and Michael Rourke’s eerie lighting.

Above all, the mark of Murphy’s superb direction is the stunning ensemble acting achieved by the mostly male cast. Larry Brandenburg is wrenching as Michael Jr., full of purpose and feeling but paralyzed by internal confusion and lifelong habits of avoidance. He is more than matched by James O’Reilly as Dada–digging deeper into a character’s reality than I’ve ever seen him do–and by the actors playing his brothers–Edward Blatchford as the powerful but stammering Iggy, James McCance as the primitive and dimwitted Hugo, Daniel Patrick Sullivan as the immature Desmond, and especially Neil Flynn as the crafty, terrifying, inwardly raging ringleader Harry. Playing the jackal to Harry’s lion is Noel Faulkner as Mush, the Carneys’ low-class friend. One of the play’s most extraordinary scenes rests on Flynn and Faulkner’s silent tension as they listen to Dada lie about why he was absent from a fight–a lie that the other, stupider brothers take at face value but that Harry, recognizing its falseness, chillingly accepts in order to preserve the Dada’s dominance; what Flynn and Faulkner accomplish simply through listening is as perfect a moment of theater as you’ll see on a stage this season. Belinda Bremner effectively embodies long-suffering dignity in the terribly underwritten role of Michael’s wife, the play’s only real weak link.

A Whistle in the Dark will upset some audiences with its unrelenting tension and physical violence–a violence that has no cathartic, exhilarating release, but simply hammers home Murphy’s dark and disturbing vision. But it’s extraordinary theater that matches physical and verbal intensity to a rare degree, and it speaks with a voice that’s personal and honest.