Brian Friel's explosive 1974 play, The Freedom of the City at Irish Repertory Theatre , is one of the Irish dramatist's most frankly political and poignantly character-driven works, and one that continues to speak to modern audiences.
Partly inspired by the infamous "Bloody Sunday" attack on Northern Irish protestors by British troops -- an event that Friel witnessed just two years earlier -- the play manages to step back and provide a prism of those events via a fictionalized version of it, set in 1970.
The satirical element that is central to the work, however, is a delicate layer lying beneath its dramatic surface, and director Ciarán O'Reilly pushes a bit too hard, while still ultimately conveying the story that Friel sets out to tell.
From the first moments of the production, it is clear that many of O'Reilly's actors are commenting on their characters rather than fully inhabiting them. Christa Scott-Reed, as an American professor pondering the sociological ramifications of the play's central event -- an inadvertent takeover of a government office by three protestors in the midst of a riot -- performs her scenes with such a blatantly smug air that the audience is effectively shut out of the debate.
As condescending as the professor's conclusions might be, her discussion of a "culture of poverty" and its effects on the people trapped inside it —to whom we now might refer as the bottom of the "99 percent" — are dramatically relevant four decades later and deserve a more nuanced reading.
Happily, the actors who play the three protagonists— James Russell, Cara Seymour, and Joseph Sikora — overcome their own initial moments of overacting to settle into more fully dimensional portrayals, as we see past the ironic demonizing and romanticizing of their actions by outsiders (as well as by each other), to the interesting realities underneath. Moreover, their monologues contain some of Friel's most beautiful writing.
Among the supporting players, Ciaran Byrne as a local priest allows his character to unfold with similar depth, and John C. Vennema as a judge presiding over an inquiry on the incident has moments of power.
In the end, despite the production's flaws, Friel's writing shines through.