nytheatre.com review by Lynn Berg
August 21, 2009
Hungry, the title of the one-man play about Bobby Sands, refers to the hunger for freedom the character and his country feel. It also refers to the hunger of a man who is literally starving to death for his cause. It's a lot for that one word title to carry and a lot for this play to support. O'Connor Theatre Project's production is a commendable effort but I feel it seems to buckle under its heavy load.
Hungry is the story of Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican who, in 1981, while captive in a British prison, led a hunger strike seeking recognition as political prisoners for him and his fellow IRA inmates and to end the sanctioned brutality they endured. After 66 days with no food Sands died and one hundred thousand people attended his funeral.
While Sands is a heroic figure he's not without complexities. He was imprisoned partly for his involvement in the bombing of a furniture company. Was that a heroic war strategy, a crime, or even terrorism? While it's addressed only cursorily, the issue is at the crux of the play's action and significance. In Sands's mind, if he breaks his fast he's admitting he's a criminal or terrorist and betraying not only the cause of the strikers but also the cause of the IRA's movement. For the audience the story confronts our own definition of terrorism and our treatment of prisoners.
So Hungry's not an easy road for the performer or the audience. The stakes are high for all. On top of that, the visceral proposal of a prison hunger strike is a challenge. Hungry never quite meets the challenges of its subject, but I admire its guts for trying.
Alex Mauney, who plays Sands, is a passionate, energetic performer who can hold an audience's attention for an hour and a half. But I didn't believe Mauney was Irish or starving to death so I was never pulled figuratively into that cell with Sands. Nor did I feel that I gained much personal insight into what he went through.
The director, Christopher Schager, does well when he lets Mauney play the words and circumstances simply. The choice to have the actor exit the stage that represents his prison and reenter wearing a leather jacket and carrying a microphone as a standup comedian is a gambit that doesn't work. But there are some welcome moments of humor and humanity that Schager directs simply and Mauney plays well. When we see and hear of the day-to-day specifics of Sands imprisonment, which are horrifying, we begin to feel for the hero as a person and understand a little of why he did what he did.
Likewise George Kehoe's writing is strongest when he addresses the very human faith and doubt that Sands must have felt. At various points he asks, "What can one man expect to do?" Sometimes his answer is "One man can do so much." They're simple and powerful words. But when Kehoe has Sands make a dying prayer for an outcome the audience knows comes to pass he betrays the power of the situation. Without knowing what Ireland's or the world's reaction would be Sands still chose to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Unfortunately, I left Hungry unsatisfied. I expected a lot from this play and was disappointed but I left respecting the production's audacity to take on the story's challenges and bring it to an audience. Perhaps its audience will be those who are hungry for any tribute to this Irish hero. Bobby Sands's story is one that deserves to be told again.