Erin-Go-Bragh! Irish-American Theatre Company

at the Edgewater Theatre Center

Away Alone is a play that feels remarkably dated–though it received its world premiere in New York just last season. It could have been written in the 30s or 40s, when Clifford Odets and Eugene O’Neill set the standards for American realism. And while the Erin-Go-Bragh! Irish-American Theatre Company gives Away Alone a serviceable midwest premiere, the play never quite comes to life.

Playwright Janet Noble wants to explore the emotional dynamics of a family, although in this case the family is a group of related and unrelated Irish immigrants in present-day New York City. Noble uses time-honored and possibly worn-out conventions to enact this drama. Her hopelessly naive protagonist, Liam (Andrew Lyons), is newly arrived in America; he functions as a surrogate for the audience, so that we can discover the New World along with him. Noble sets most of the play in a cramped Bronx tenement where the Irish characters all live, creating an environment that is at once familiar and emotionally volatile, giving the audience a window into a situation of great intimacy. To create some distance from this setting, and to bring to the surface some of the issues that are silenced at the apartment, she gives us Mario (Robert John Keating), the street-smart bartender to whom the characters turn for solace and advice.

Noble treads this familiar territory competently but rather unimaginatively, rarely creating unfamiliar or surprising moments. Each character is a distinct “type”: Liam, the gullible yet wise youth; Desmond (Jim Colofranson), the disillusioned romantic; Mary (Christine Benk), the nascent feminist; Owen (Thomas M. Shea), the hardened realist; Paddy (Steve Brisley), the good-natured social climber. The drama of the play is supposed to be created by bringing such conflicting personalities into collision.

But unfortunately Noble’s characters rarely collide. At least in the first act, they bounce softly off one another, creating little tension. There doesn’t seem to be any engine driving the first act; little happens to give the characters or the audience much of a stake in the outcome of the play. In fact, so much of the first act is exposition and background intended to enrich the characters–their stories of what has just happened offstage or in the recent past–that momentum is constantly impeded. They discuss certain harsh realities–random violence in the city, the exploitation of immigrant workers, the hard life back in Ireland, the constant threat of deportation–but these are talked about, not concretely dramatized. The effects of these conditions are rarely seen in the characters, making the tone of the first act stagnant and too pleasant.

The problems that do arise don’t add much weight. Paddy, who works as a grounds keeper on an estate in upstate New York, is dating the daughter of the man who owns the estate. Desmond mopes all day reading Walt Whitman instead of looking for a job. Liam continually buys stolen goods, like an answering machine and a microwave oven, from a man on the street named Tyrone. None of these situations provided the kind of hook that could pull me along for an hour and a half.

More disappointing, those scenes that could have given weight to the first act are not developed. The most problematic example occurs halfway through the act, when Breda (Libby Christopherson), the hyperprudish woman living across the hall, tries to tell Liam about being sexually accosted by a cook at the restaurant where she works. While Breda breaks into painful sobs, aching for physical comfort from Liam, Liam continually scoots out of the way, afraid that she will scuff his new cowboy boots. This scene is clearly written from Liam’s point of view, and we are asked to chuckle at his uncomfortable situation, made doubly uncomfortable by Breda’s romantic inclinations toward him. (On the night I attended, the audience did laugh.) Breda’s understandably terrifying violation is thus made cute and summarily dismissed.

Only in the second act does Noble elevate the passions in her play. Owen, whose dream is to return to Ireland and open his own diner, is crushed when he discovers that his wife, back home, has sold his property. Realizing that he is forever trapped in his third-class existence, he lashes out at everyone around him, particularly at Desmond, who has taken a “womanish” job as a nanny. When Desmond drowns himself–perhaps, the play suggests, because he is gay (haven’t these offensive stereotypes disappeared yet?)–Owen is racked with pain and guilt.

Noble seems to want to write a play with tragic stature, but unfortunately the route she takes to that tragedy is too long and seemingly superficial. The first act does not create an adequate emotional foundation to support the second act, and the tragedy becomes melodrama.

That is all the more unfortunate because some members of the cast create truly tragic performances. Christopherson fully commits to Breda’s shame and humiliation after being molested. Watching Breda, who is always utterly prim and proper, lose control of her emotions is quite painful. Owen’s furious outburst when he discovers that his life’s dream has vanished is terrifying to witness–he attempts to tear apart his kitchen. Shea is truly a frightening presence onstage.

Moments such as these unfortunately bring into relief the restraint of so much of the rest of the play. While Lauren J. Polenske’s staging is always efficient and uncluttered–no simple task with half a dozen actors onstage for so much of the time–her cast by and large approaches the play hesitantly. Bold, memorable choices are uncommon. Then again, Noble’s play doesn’t provide many opportunities for the cast to go all out.

Erin-Go-Bragh!’s straightforward, sincere production is still endearing. There’s no posturing or attitudinizing onstage. It’s rather like watching community theater: no matter how clunky and stagy the production becomes at times, no matter how tempered the performances, it’s clear that the actors are enjoying themselves and find the theater a useful place to explore their common heritage. It doesn’t make for great art, but being in the presence of committed individuals is always rewarding.