After Luke & When I Was God
nytheatre.com review by Peter Schuyler
August 5, 2009
I imagine there are few things harder to be than a contemporary Irish playwright. Given the theatrical history of the Emerald Isle, its lyric tradition, it must be either a very daring or very foolish individual indeed who steps up to be measured against the likes of the Irish literary pantheon. On the daring end falls Conal Creedon, author of After Luke and When I Was God.
The two plays are the latter parts of Creedon's seriocomic Second City Trilogy, focusing on life in present-day County Cork. Both plays are about the family dynamic, specifically the relationships between fathers and sons. In After Luke, two half-brothers, Maneen and Son, share a memory so terrible that it sets them at odds with each other all their lives. In the center is Dadda, Maneen's father, who does his best to keep the peace but can only do so much. As he sagely says "...when two elephants go to war, 'tis the grass gets trampled." After a long stint away from Cork in London, Maneen returns home, disrupting the tenuous peace that Son has established with Dadda. Conflict heaps upon conflict until the only outcome must be violence.
In When I Was God, Dino lives in the shadow of his father's regrets, and under the pressure of his expectations. It's a classic plot, the father using the son to live the life he wished he could have had. In Father's case, that life was one of a champion hurling player. Hurling is a traditional Gaelic sport, something of a combination between lacrosse, field hockey, and rugby. Dino displays little talent for the sport, coming home bruised and battered from each match. After a particularly nasty head injury, Dino's mother refuses to let him play the sport anymore, instead signing him up for table tennis. Father reacts as one would expect, until Dino displays real talent at the sport, going as far as the regional championships for his school. To tell the rest would rob the reader of one of the funniest moments of the evening.
Creedon's main device in these pieces is repetition. In After Luke, the three characters break from each scene repeating their stances on each other, the words becoming almost mantra by the end of the piece. It doesn't lead to the most satisfying end in the first piece, but given the relationship between the characters, that may be the point. Creedon's use of repetition is much more successful in When I Was God, so much so that even though it seems the entire play consists of three paragraphs, I found myself laughing uproariously as the words stayed the same but the meaning was in constant shift, each repetition raising the stakes to a beautifully bittersweet conclusion.
Tim Ruddy's direction seemed a bit stiff at the outset, but I think it just took me time to adjust to the very presentational nature of the first play. Like the dialogue, the blocking is very pattern-based and repetitive, but this is a very specific choice made by both director and playwright. The strict staging doesn't serve the first piece as well as it should, but it is the saving grace of the second, driving the action and the comedy.
The small cast does an excellent job, each with their shining moment. Colin Lane's portrayal of Dadda, a man with an impossible task, is very touching. Michael Mellamphy shines in When I Was God, jumping from guileless young son to mother hen effortlessly. But the night really belongs to Gary Gregg—he is the backbone of both plays and stunning to watch. You can't help but root for him in After Luke, as Son, a heartbreakingly simple mechanic who just wants some peace. And you can't help but guffaw at his portrayal of the bleacher-banging father in When I Was God.
The technical aspects are all executed well, though the standout is Brian Nason's lighting, bringing form and dimension to an almost bare stage. Lex Liang's set is a little too abstract for my taste—I would have preferred even a suggestion of County Cork, but what I got was closer to an ocean floor, the stage all bathed in lavenders.
On the whole Creedon's show holds up very well against the pantheon of Irish theatre, taking chances with some very risky devices. It's a fun night out, and I'd be interested to see the trilogy in its entirety; if the first act is as entertaining as the last two, it would be well worth it.