Marty Maguire in A Night in November
(Photo © Richard Rownak)
Marty Maguire in A Night in November
(Photo © Richard Rownak)
We live in a time when heroes are scarce, when even such a diligent hero-spotter as the late Joseph Campbell would be hard-pressed to nominate acceptable candidates. Instead, we see a contemporary population rife with swelled heads and feet of clay. Nevertheless, some heroes do exist in our midst. One of them is Kenneth Norman McAllister, the protagonist of Marie Jones's one-character play A Night in November. The show has returned to the Irish Arts Center, where it first played so successfully in 1998. This time, there is a different soloist (Marty Maguire) and a different director (Tim Byron Owen), but the work remains extremely powerful.

Like the two men who gab away about their experiences as movie extras in Jones's better-known Stones in His Pocket, Kenneth is ostensibly a cog in a wheel. He works in a Belfast dole office, has a complacent and obtuse wife, a couple of children, a father-in-law whom he can't stand, and a routine that he doesn't think to question. He's been going along with it all like a good little factotum, occasionally chafing only because he's a Protestant who's overseen at the office by Jerry, a Catholic.

It's his father-in-law, Ernie Thompson, who jolts Kenny from his near stupor one night in November. The two of them are at a football (soccer) game between the North Ireland and Republic teams that will decide which team will travel to America for a championship match. For the first time, Kenneth registers the depth of hatred that the North Ireland Protestants feel for their Irish neighbors. He's particularly repulsed by the stadium-wide chant of "trick or treat," a direct reference to the murder of seven Irish citizens on a recent-enough Halloween when gunfire at a pub was preceded by the familiar holiday taunt.

Once Kenny realizes that he can no longer stomach the prejudice instilled in him and his compatriots throughout his 40 years, he starts reassessing everything he believes. He takes a look as his attitude towards his boss, even going so far as to drive the man home to a Belfast area he'd never previously visited. Later on, he recoils from his wife's reactions to the impromptu trip; upon hearing that Jerry's house was in slight disarray, she says, "They manage to trail themselves out of the slums and then, when they do get nice houses, they let them go to wrack and ruin. Is it any wonder they don't deserve anything?"

From then on, Kenny can't stop himself from badgering his friends about their acceptance of the vile status quo, which he refers to with the sly phrase "salt-of-the-earth racism." He won't let up on his wife and, more than anything, he won't stop beating up on himself until he makes a dramatic decision that affects his standing at his exclusive golf club and jeopardizes his position in a community that he has come to loathe. What he does next will not be revealed here (because it's a compelling theatrical twist), but it puts him in one of the oddest hero's spotlights that a ticket buyer is ever likely to encounter.

In addition to channeling her anger via Kenny's heartfelt and soulful complaints, Jones -- herself a Belfast-born Protestant -- has written a plum role for an actor, and Maguire grabs the opportunity with both fists. The round-faced, husky actor parades a couple dozen characters across the stage during the two-act proceedings. Beyond the versatility that he demonstrates as if turning on so many dimes, he gives the convincing impression that the work he's doing isn't simply fulfilling a job requirement. By the time he reaches the play's emotional climax, Maguire looks as if he's not only weeping as an actor playing a part over the character's plight but also as a real-life man.

It would be a relief for anyone who is not Irish to be able to sit back and watch this play with a not-in-my-neighborhood response but, as specific as A Night in November is, that's how painfully universal it is also. Jones could just as easily be writing about Palestinians and Jews or Shiites and Sunnis. Indeed, you leave the theater worrying on the one hand that the solution to intolerance is impossible while, on the other hand, hoping that peace between enemies can perhaps be reached -- especially if plays like A Night in November have their desired effect.