As anyone familiar with politically engaged Irish theater of the moment will guess, Defender of the Faith is about the Troubles with a capital "T." More specifically, Carolan peers closely at one of the situation's most ignominious and insidious by-products in the 1980's: informers.
In the IRA-sympathetic household Thomas (Luke Kirby) and younger brother Danny (Matt Ball) inhabit, iron rule is practiced by their hard-nosed father (Anto Nolan). During the action in this all-male farm residence on the North Ireland border (appropriately designed by Charles Corcoran) -- where the absent mother is significantly said to be in a home for the mentally disturbed -- word begins to circulate that someone is the neighborhood is spilling IRA beans.
To ferret the betrayer out, guerrilla honcho J. J. (David Lansbury) arrives, strongly suspecting that veteran farm-hand Barney (Peter Rogan) is the loose-lipped culprit. Although loyal-to-the-cause Thomas doesn't buy the accusation, his father does. As a consequence, Barney meets with a dire fate. But Thomas, only partially convinced that the guilty party has been found, continues his hunt with further devastating results. The ramifications take more of a toll on family serenity than might have been predicted.
It's an unusually ugly story, and Carolan -- whose first play this is -- dawdles awhile getting it told. Towards the middle of the intermissionless work, it seems as if what's on display is a strictly domestic drama of passing, if not riveting, interest. But long about the time J. J. sidles in like a rodent-starved snake, tension and intrigue jolt the audience to attention. From then on, it's full steam ahead on a chillingly zig-zag course.
In addition to a need for a more taut beginning and middle, the play's biggest flaw is that Carolan has underestimated the appeal of pre-adolescent brother Danny, especially as performed with such spunk by Ball. The hyperactive lad all but steals the opening scene and then disappears until the final sequence, which reduces him to a mere pawn in the playwright's drive to make his point about family implosion. Danny deserves better, as do the observers who've been charmed by him.
Fortunately, the others don't lag behind, which says plenty about director Ciaran O'Reilly's connection and commitment to the mordant script. Kirby, who made a splash in last year's Jump/Cut, puts another notch on his emoting belt with this complex portrait of a moral man torn between duty to family and cause. Nolan's contributions as the hard-nosed father are also tough-minded, and Lansbury, Rogan, and Marc Aden Gray as an apparently interloping Protestant, are all up to the tense demands placed on them.
Carolan comes up short of a perfect play, but still he's looked unflinchingly at conditions in civil war-torn Ireland -- only somewhat quieter now -- that'll have exiting audiences grieving with the characters they've just solemnly witnessed. That's no meager accomplishment.