Aideen O'Kelly, Dara Coleman,
and Frank McCourt (front) in apublicity shot for Red Roses and Petrol(Photo: Lon M. Teller)
Aideen O'Kelly, Dara Coleman,
and Frank McCourt (front) in a
publicity shot for Red Roses and Petrol
(Photo: Lon M. Teller)
There's a stirring image in the first act of Joseph O'Connor's Red Roses and Petrol. Moya Doyle discovers videotapes that her just-deceased husband, Enda, has left behind and inserts one into the VCR. Enda, who was a university teacher, begins talking into the darkened room and, as he does, Moya--silhouetted in front of the screen--caresses her husband's televised face. The stunning moment is made even more so by the gesture's symbolizing the couple's relationship as slowly revealed over the course of the play: a woman devoted to a man whom she could never entirely reach.

This brief sequence is also notable for being a quiet one in an otherwise noisy comedy drama. In addition to Moya, others who have big mouths and aren't afraid to put them to rat-a-tat use are her son, Johnny, and her daughters, Catherine and Medbh (pronounced Maeve). Edgy Medbh lives in Dublin with her ma; volatile Johnny has fled to Paris but has returned on this sad occasion; Catherine lives in New York but is back for her father's cremation with her slow-witted yet kind boyfriend, Tom, in tow.

These five are let loose to writhe around each other like snakes in a pit on the night preceding Enda Doyle's funeral and on the day of the service, when no one shows up at the house after the ceremony. The family is rife with secrets, the biggest of them being that the patriarch was a womanizer and had had a daughter by a former mistress. This remains one of those elephant-in-the-room subjects that everyone tiptoes around--and has grown weary of tip-toeing around.

In a play, of course, the merest mention of such a matter is like bringing a gun on stage; sooner or later, it's going to go off. And, eventually, it does. But while the audience waits to see how Moya will react to Enda's dicey past being brought out into the open, other secrets and longtime resentments are brought to a boil, allowed to cool, and then brought to a boil again. Something is made of Johnny's refusal to attend Enda's funeral, and Catherine's independent decision to discourage after-cremation visitors is questioned. Sibling rivalries are revived, as are references to Medbh's past; a troublesome abortion seems to have taken place. Moya's children, who appreciate and repel each other by turns, are alternately protective of their mother and upset at her never having confronted their errant father.

All of this could be nothing more than the makings of soap opera--you know, Days of Our Dublin Lives--were it not that O'Connor, a best-selling author in Ireland, is able to write dialogue with all the crackle of a house on fire. In the bargain, he passes along some wonderfully colorful local expressions. (My favorite: "He's as thick as shite in a bucket.") O'Connor also knows how to notice and then report on the humor that lurks around the direst circumstances. Not only are the Doyles articulate--the living-room walls are chockablock with books resting on sagging shelves--but, as they fly off the handle at each other, they get themselves into some amusing situations.

At one point, for instance, Moya opens up the wooden holder in which Enda's remains have been placed. She's intending to divide them among her children and so shifts the ashes to what look like tupperware containers. It's then that one of the daughters cries out, "You can't put Daddy into a bloody lunch box!" Offended, Catherine stores her third of the curious bounty in an envelope. Later, Johnny rifles through Catherine's handbag and, finding the envelope, assumes it's a cocaine stash. Whereupon he unwittingly snorts some of what's left of his dad--an image that's funny because it's horrifying, horrifying because it's funny.

Johnny, by the way, is one of the problems in a generally well-crafted play. When he first confronts his family, he's on the attack. With what seems like only old grudges for motivation, he lights into his family and into the well-meaning Tom. He's a grenade with its pin pulled but, curiously, he never quite explodes. By the second half of the play, he has inexplicably become a docile character; as a result, some of the piece's potential for combustion dissipates. Maybe O'Connor doesn't feel it necessary for the family to be a shambles after 24 hours of friction, but his decision to hold back from using Johnny as a catalyst for opening deeper wounds leads to his play's being a solid domestic drama rather than a more significant tragedy.

Under Neal Jones' suave direction, the actors are uniformly fine. Aideen O'Kelly plays Moya with two feet on the ground and with the face of a woman who long ago decided not to reveal any of the pain she's bearing; her expressions are often the ones that mean, "Don't go any further with what you're about to say." (Moya recalls that, in her younger days, she was an actress who once played Mary in Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. As Moya, O'Kelly looks as if she'd also make a first-rate Juno.)

Dara Coleman has Johnny's fire. An expert mimic, he finds much amusement in Johnny's ability to ape accents ranging from upper-class British to Midwestern American. If the role lacks a final crescendo, it has everything to do with the script's deficiencies and nothing to do with Coleman's skill at meeting any acting challenge lobbed his way.

Both Julie Hale as Medbh and Fiona Gallagher as Catherine find the nuances in their characters' grit and senses of loss. David Costelloe is given what is almost always a difficult assignment--playing someone with a low-ish IQ--and he's superb at it, handily conveying the strength of a man who knows all he needs to know. Billed last but in bold type in the production's promo material, Frank McCourt shows up on the small screen to deliver Enda's speeches smoothly and soothingly. The sincerest of these monologues is a final commentary through which the audience, but not Moya, finds out how he really regards his wife.

The dramatic pull of Red Roses and Petrol sometimes slackens, which caused my mind to wander once or twice. So I might have missed a line that would have explained the title. (Is it, maybe, a quote from a Seamus Heaney poem that any Dubliner would immediately recognize? Or a phrase once uttered by another of the great 20th-century Irish poets?) If the exact reference remains obscure for the moment, its current context is clear: It refers to a strong piece of contemporary playwriting.