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Review: Gabriel Byrne Recalls His Personal and Artistic Coming-of-Age in Walking with Ghosts

The legendary Irish actor brings his acclaimed solo show, based on his memoir, to Broadway.

Gabriel Byrne in Walking with Ghosts at the Music Box Theatre
(© Emilio Madrid)

Two big questions are bound to pop up going into Gabriel Byrne's new solo show, Walking with Ghosts. Can the Irish actor — a stage and screen legend, to be sure, but not necessarily the kind of superstar one might expect to get a Broadway stage all to himself — hold our attention for two hours and 15 minutes? And considering Byrne adapted Walking With Ghosts from his memoir of the same name, does Byrne have enough compelling material to fill that time? For the most part, the answers to both questions turn out to be yes, as can now be seen on Broadway at the Music Box after successful runs in the West End, Edinburgh, and Dublin.

The "ghosts" Byrne is referring to aren't literal ghosts, but the memories of crucial figures and events in his life. There are, of course, family members: among them, a grandmother who turned him onto cinema while his parents severely restricted his movie-watching habits. But Byrne inhabits many other people onstage: mischievous Catholic school peers, frustrated fellow plumbers during Byrne's misbegotten stint working in that trade, impatient film- and television-studio executives.

Byrne structures the show as a series of episodes, each marked off by the dimming of lights in Sinéad McKenna's lighting design (McKenna also designed the elegantly minimalist set, of which more below). Emotionally speaking, the episodes generally range from warmly lighthearted to autumnally reflective. Two episodes, however, stand out for their gravity and exploration of personal trauma. Towards the end of Act 1, Byrne delves unsparingly into his sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest, which eventually killed off his initial desire to join the church. And Act 2 climaxes with a similarly harrowing account of his struggles with alcoholism, in which he recalls encounters with Richard Burton at his most intoxicated. (A detail from Burton's autopsy report that Byrne mentions — that there were flecks of crystallized alcohol found on his spine — still chills me to the bone every time I recall it.)

None of these anecdotes are blazingly original in and of themselves, and the details of his Irish working-class upbringing only marginally refreshes them. Thank goodness Byrne proves to be such a genial, charismatic presence throughout. Though Byrne weaves in and out of various characters and reminiscences with startling ease, he's not out to dazzle us with his technical facility in Walking With Ghosts. Instead, there's a welcome feeling of humility to this show. He may have a message to impart to us about how to reckon with the ghosts of our pasts, but he places his trust in the stories he tells to make his points, allowing us to find ourselves in them.

Byrne may be the main attraction of Walking With Ghosts, but it's a tribute to his selflessness as a performer that the show also boasts design elements worth writing home about. As one might expect, director Lonny Price has gone with a minimalist set: a table, a chair, and a bench. McKenna, however, has come up with a translucent, abstract web-like backdrop that evokes a sense of interconnectedness appropriate to a show in which Byrne finds running themes throughout these disparate life experiences. Perhaps the show's most memorable technical aspect, however, is McKenna's lighting, which, alongside Sinéad Diskin's sound design, infuses the show with a palpably haunted atmosphere in keeping with its title.

Far from distracting or pushing us away from Byrne, such technical elements have the uncanny effect of enticing us to lean in further. Walking With Ghosts may not necessarily be life-changing, but the spectacle of seeing this great actor reminisce about his own personal and artistic coming-of-age turns out to be surprisingly affecting indeed.