Based on playwright Sebastian Barry's own great-grandfather, The Steward of Christendom, now playing Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum, follows Thomas Dunn, a former Dublin police officer who, as he says several times, rose as far as a Catholic could in those days. When the play opens, Dunn (played by Brian Dennehy) bears a cold, lonely life in a mental home. He has a combative relationship with his caregiver (played by James Lancaster) and receives rare visits from his son-in-law (played by Dylan Saunders) and one daughter (Abby Wilde). His grandchildren fear him and after the audience witnesses Dunn's rantings, once with a saber, it is clear why his eldest daughter (played by Kalen Harriman) avoids bringing her kids to visit. Dunn's memories are muddled and he has a difficult time differentiating fact from fiction and past from present.
Brian Dennehy fully invests in the character. With extensive monologues a Shakespearean actor could appreciate, he definitely gives his all, but it is exhausting trying to figure out the narrative in this confused character's mind. Dennehy exposes himself, radiating a frustrated man who has lost his mind. When he strips himself stark naked, it visualizes the man's vulnerability. He digs into the Irish dialect, which illustrates his verisimilitude. However, much of the dialogue is incomprehensible. And, though, because of the character's weak psyche, it is understandable that he would mutter extensively; that also makes for a bewildering three hours.
Some of Dunn's hallucinations are too quixotic, particularly those involving his son, so that instead of being able to take in the lyrical nature of the piece, it feels like schoolwork, with the audience forced to decipher both the story line and the delusions with few clues from the text or visuals.
The supporting performances are solid, but it is Wilde who truly stands out as the exasperated middle daughter, stricken with a hunchback and a life of spinsterhood. She heartbreakingly conveys Annie's forlorn plight.
The costumes, by Leah Piehl, capture the time period of the Irish '30s. Robert Wierzerl's lighting design cleverly isolates the characters and projects visual symbols of Dunn's memories. The exquisite set, by Kevin Depinet, with deteriorating cathedral wood walls and crumbling wallpaper, signifies Dunn's fragile soul, body and mind while also harking back to his Catholic upbringing.
It is evident that Barry has invested in this family's history, one that reflects his own family tree, but the strings of reality that can be comprehended are rare and not very compelling. The concept of entering the mind of someone suffering from dementia can be potent, but instead of being illuminating, the execution of this particular experience has become unpleasant viewing. Because it is difficult to understand much of what Dunn says, and because much of the symbolism is heavy-handed, the evening becomes dull.