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This trio of plays by Ireland's Tom Murphy vividly displays the troubles his countrymen have endured over the past 125 years.

Marie Mullen, Treasa Ni Mhiollain, and
Aaron Monaghan in Famine
(© Catherine Ashmore)
Irish playwright Tom Murphy's profound concerns with the troubles his fellow countrymen, countrywomen, and their forebears have endured over the past 125 years are on vivid display in DruidMurphy, now at the at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, consisting of three works that Tony Award-winning director Garry Hynes has joined together in a retrospective.

Unfortunately, for some theatergoers, the passion behind the plays' impulses may be more affecting than the works themselves, even as well acted as they are by the company.

The most successful of the trio is A Whistle in the Dark,set in 1960 Coventry, England where Michael Carney (Marty Rea) has emigrated, married English wife Betty (Eileen Walsh) and is playing reluctant host to his four brothers (Aaron Monaghan, Garrett Lombard, Rory Nolan, Gavin Drea) and Dada (Niall Buggy).

What Michael had unsuccessfully hoped to leave behind is the violence his macho family represents. Believing him to be weak, his father and siblings take over the household, eventually undermining Michael thoroughly and causing a seemingly irreparable rift between him and the ill-treated and perplexed Betty.

Murphy depicts the battling Carneys as larger-than-life, whipping the action with as much explicit menace as the chain that hottest-tempered brother Harry carries into an off-stage brawl with a rival family. Indeed, the scale on which Murphy constructs his piece strains credulity but simultaneously has the two-fisted grip of Greek tragedy that's difficult to dismiss.

Famine leaps back to the merciless 1840s potato famine that changed the course of Irish history so radically that its effects are still felt. To confront the devastation, Murphy tells the story of John Connor (Brian Doherty), who resolves to see his family through the natural disaster no matter what it takes and despite resistance from his long-suffering wife (Marie Mullen) or rebellious daughter Maeve (Beth Cooke).

What it takes -- as we see in a series of downward-spiraling scenes that come across as more somber pageant than play -- is just about everything from him and from incensed villagers like crippled Mickeleen O'Leary (Aaron Monaghan). Through the course of the dire situation (including references to the diseases afflicting the deprived population), various solutions are sought -- illustrated particularly in one high-tension scene involving governing officials (Rory Nolan, Edward Clayton) and Roman Catholic clergymen (Niall Buggy, Marty Rea). The only one reached, sadly, is emigration.

The slightest entry is Conversations on a Homecoming, which follows one chatty night in western Ireland's Country Galway, where another character named Michael (Marty Rea again), who has been in New York City for 10 years, reunites boisterously with old friends Tom (Garrett Lombard), Liam (Aaron Monaghan) and Junior (Rory Nolan) at the White House pub, presided over by cheerful barmaid Missus (Marie Mullen) and wistful barmaid Anne (Beth Cooke).

The only disillusionment that occurs during this bar play that doesn't unfold in almost every previous bar play ever written is that Michael, whose career as a Manhattan actor is apparently going nowhere, eventually has an epiphany of the Thomas-Wolfe-you-can't-go-home-again variety. It seems his migrating has irreversibly transformed him.

That migration is Murphy's underlying and very powerful theme. The other persisting reference --which may be Hynes' notion as well as Murphy's -- is how women fare in a male-dominated culture. Each of the play opens with a woman staring enigmatically into the middle distance. What they may be thinking is another potent question Murphy provocatively supplies.

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