Organic Theater Company

By Jack Helbig

Billy Roche is not well-known in America–this production is his U.S. premiere–but he should be. Part of the current wave of young Irish playwrights that includes Sebastian Barry and Marina Carr, Roche came of artistic age in the late 80s and 90s. A miniaturist, he describes his corner of Ireland with eyes unclouded by politics or sentimentality. A native of Wexford–a small former fishing village in the southeast corner of Ireland–Roche has spent the last decade and a half writing about it, first in an autobiographical novel, Tumbling Down, and more recently in a series of plays. Belfry, the third part of the Wexford trilogy, concerns a dreary middle-aged sacristan, Artie, who spends the entire evening reflecting on his one great moment of passion, a brief adulterous affair with a parishioner.

In this spare, beautiful work Roche proves he understands the central paradox of playwriting: that the best path to universality is through the particular. If you set out to write something that speaks to all people in all times, you’ll probably end up with something as gaseous and empty as the avant-garde play within a play in the first act of The Seagull. But if you focus on the details of life around you–the curl of someone’s hair, the turn of her phrases, the million petty particulars that make this time and place utterly different from anywhere else–you have a fighting chance of touching everyone everywhere.

Roche counts among his influences American novelist Henry Miller and playwrights Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, though Belfry reminds me more of John Updike than of any other American writer. Artie suffers a very Updike-like spiritual loneliness–and in a very Updikean setting. And like the sad, solitary, horny Protestant minister in his novel A Month of Sundays, Roche’s sacristan hopes to find in the profane secular world what’s missing from his dry religious life. Even Artie’s implied redemption–achieved by retelling his story–is typical of Updike (though it’s also very Catholic, since Artie is confessing his sins).

Belfry is essentially a memory play with Artie serving as both narrator and actor, showing us both the triviality of the sacristan’s daily routine and the brief glory of his affair. His work couldn’t be more boring. Surrounded by the trappings of spirituality, Artie is little more than a glorified stage manager, making sure the parish priest has all the props he needs for the service: lighted candles, flowers, the bells ringing the right hymn.

It’s a measure of Roche’s gifts as a naturalistic playwright that he never gooses the play with gratuitous violence–nor does he need to. When the cuckolded husband confronts Artie there’s no Hollywood-style fistfight (what Irish parishioner would punch a churchman?), only an angry exchange of words. This dialogue is all the more moving in Organic’s staging because both Artie and the husband, Donal, seem on the verge of tears throughout it–they’ve both lost the woman they love–but neither man can bring himself to break the blue-collar taboo against men crying.

Likewise Roche’s love scenes are never sensationalized; in fact, they’re often brief and rather chaste. Artie is too guarded and emotionally backward to allow himself to be swept up in the sensuality of the affair. In his tiny world, it’s thrilling enough simply to have a woman around, helping arrange the flowers for a funeral or putting together a birthday party for the altar boy.

Director Ina Marlowe–reportedly working closely with Roche–has come up with an almost perfect cast. Roderick Reeples is every inch the emotionally starved sacristan, moving with the weary pace of a man doomed to life in prison; his voice alone speaks volumes about Artie’s ambivalence over the affair and its aftermath. We’re not even sure whether he repeats his tale as a form of repentance or as a way to relive his all-too-brief romance.

By contrast, Cynthia Judge as Angela moves like a big cat that’s just discovered its cage door is open. Her seduction of Artie is swift and relentless. This take on their affair is a bit sexist, but it also suits Artie’s subjective reconstruction of events: Angela is the woman who loved him and left him, and his misogyny arises from his hurt. (Artie and Angela never achieve a lovers’ communion because they’re never really in sync: either she’s burning with desire and he’s reluctant, or he’s yearning to continue the relationship and she’s ready to call it quits.)

Jeff Still makes a very credible working-class husband, exhausted by manual labor and trapped in his own rules of masculine conduct–he spends part of the first act destroyed because he lost a handball tournament. From the moment you see Still as Donal awkwardly try to embrace his wife, you know he’s a cuckold and will be cuckolded in one form or another for the rest of his life.

By and large the staging is good; Marlowe, not always a strong director, fumbles less often than usual. She does cut some scenes off too quickly: Artie’s first sexual encounter with Angela ends before they get a chance to generate much heat, and there are moments when Artie confronts his sorrow that one wonders whether Marlowe isn’t in some way afraid of the deeper tones in Roche’s powerful script. Or perhaps she overlooked them, in small ways stifling the full power of the material.

Happily, Roche’s play is too strong to be wounded by such petty lapses–just as Artie discovers to his astonishment that he’s too strong to be destroyed by a failed romance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Belfry theater still uncredited.