A play about an Irish family rarely breaks the mold of being too long, too sad, and too predictable. Usually someone important dies halfway through and we’re stuck with the remaining characters who have to deal with it. But Shannon O’Neill’s May the Road Rise Up, directed by Spenser Davis at the Factory Theater, is a stellar example of why we shouldn’t always judge a play by its marketing.
The people who die are already dead when the play begins, and it’s their absence that causes much grief and propels the plot. The audience is seated in a semicircle around a middle-class kitchen that offers intimate playing space around the edges. Everything is precisely organized, from the draped dish towels behind the sink to the framed photos lining the teal-painted walls. This home doesn’t feel lived-in save for an athletic jacket hanging on the back of one kitchen chair.
This calm and order dissipate as we become acquainted with the ensemble of ten who bustle through in an expertly crafted opening montage that takes up every inch of the stage. We meet the Murphys, including bottled-up mom and excellent nurse Patty (Loretta Rezos); her son, Michael (Vic Kuligoski), a recovering addict; and her father, Danny (Patrick Blashill), a former boxer full of pride and whiskey.
Michael’s brief return to his small hometown to attend his grandpa Danny’s birthday is the catalyst that shows how an abundance of blame and inaction can cause a community to implode. Yet unbridled friendship and good alcohol prove choice comfort. This is a play about how we heal and cope in a time of turmoil, internal and external. Through major tragic losses, combined with deep-seated guilt and gut-wrenching revelations, O’Neill has crafted an exemplary work that leaves much room for humor and hope. v