The Steward of Christendom: Theater Review

Wan drama of Irish independence through the raving perceptions of a former head cop under the British Crown, hoisted by the charisma of star Brian Dennehy. 

Brian Dennehy stars as a Lear-like former Irish cop in this revival of Sebastian Barry's drama at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown L.A.

Thomas Dunne (Brian Dennehy), based upon the great-grandfather of playwright Sebastian Barry, had been commissioner of the Dublin Metropolitan Police in the years before Irish independence in 1922, responsible for enforcing order on behalf of British rule. His fellows derisively dismissed him as a “Castle Catholic.” In The Steward of Christendom, set 10 years later, Dunne now resides in a small room of his own atop a rural madhouse, stripped not only of authority and status but down to his dirty drawers and shoeless, a ranting King Lear of the civil service.

Like Lear, Dunne has three daughters, along with a son lost in The Great War. Unlike Lear, in this play he neither strays from the stormy heath nor has any fool for a foil, and for nigh onto three hours, the audience must partake of his mad consciousness, for although Dunne interacts with asylum attendants in the present and family in the past, there are few respites of objectivity as we experience most of the action through his fevered memory and perception.

Essentially it is a one-man show, as the other characters mostly exist as projections of his own demented recollections, the role unremittingly demanding. As a play, it meanders with filigreed rhetoric to touch on themes both historic and personal, while generating little illumination or successfully conveyed development. It’s about civic duty and patriotic betrayal, paternal love and loss, a lifelong conflict between petty respect and deeper ties of land and blood, and the rage and ravages of aging. Yet although the crannies of these issues are expostulated at considerable length, they are more invoked and illustrated than explored.

Without the unifying grounding magnetism of Dennehy’s performance, the text would be a considerable slog. Despite the nearly patented eloquence of stage Irish locutions, the dancing language Dunne spouts gives Dennehy mostly a surfeit of verbal ornamentation, more pretty than lyrical, precariously close to blarney and blather, notwithstanding the earnest and committed seriousness of the writer.

As his character lurches from the lucid to the incoherent and back again, Dennehy’s vocal dexterity and sculptural physical presence convey more of the contradictory essence of Dunne’s conflicted values than do the lines. He knows how to use his sound to instill meaning behind the words and to invest his flamboyance with an underlying stillness: his impassive, haunted stares register as subtly as close-ups even at considerable distance in the Taper (as the set design must suggest almost amusingly a cramped attic room within the largest onstage space imaginable).

Having given us his Willie Loman and the full panoply of Eugene O’Neill (and Beckett) leads, one can well appreciate the lure of this part for Dennehy at 75. It may be as close to tackling a Lear without actually doing it, and this handsomely mounted production, played with polish by all hands (notably a brisk and acerbic James Lancaster as Dunne’s warder and Abby Wilde as the most devoted daughter) probably extracts as much value out of this baleful revival as it has to offer.

Venue: Mark Taper Forum at The Music Center, downtown L.A. (runs through Jan. 5, 2014)

Cast: Brian Dennehy, Mary-Pat Green, James Lancaster, Abby Wilde, Kalen Harriman, Carmela Corbett, Dylan Saunders, Grant Palmer, Daniel Weinstein

Director: Steven Rothman

Playwright: Sebastian Barry

Set designer: Kevin Depinet

Lighting designer: Robert Wierzel

Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers

Costume designer: Leah Piehl

Presented by Center Theatre Group