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Eileen O’Connell and Jason Williams
in Himself
(Photo: Alyssa Scheinson)
"Some are desperate to get out of Ireland, others are desperate to get Ireland out of themselves." This is the tag line for the Aran Rock Theatre Company's production of Colm Byrne's play Himself at the Daryl Roth 2 Theatre, but the play does not concern flight from Ireland's shores as much as it does a homecoming.

Sean, a County Claire native just turned 30, has returned to his ancestral village Mullachmoor in the bogs of Western Ireland to confront his aging and near-senile father, Michael. Played by Jason Williams with earnest energy leavened by bone-deep anxiety, Sean wants to resolve the question of his sole living parent's care before departing for America with his girlfriend, Angela.

Michael, played by playwright-director Byrne, is obsessed with the memory of his deceased wife -- Sean's mother, May. During his reveries of her, he listens to old recordings of his own voice that were made during his career as an opera singer. Michael is as cut off from the world around him as he was from May when she was alive and he was regularly taking off on tours around the world. His behavior towards Angela and his utter disregard for Sean (not to mention any other relationships he has in the present) make the old man's longing for the past seem less a great passion than a pathetic yearning by a coward for something he squandered.

In keeping with the play's early 1970s setting, we learn that Sean and Angela want to start a commune in America, laughably called "Utempia," but that she is more comfortable with the idea of free love than he is. Before going to America, Sean wants to convince the local doctor (well played by Broadway veteran Patrick Tull) to help him resolve things with his father, but Angela objects to their approach. What ensues is a strange series of events, some of which weakly echo Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. Their resolution is dramaturgically weak, as well.

The play is not without elements to be commended; some pithy humor about Ireland is in evidence, as in Sean's remark that "We don't talk to each other here, we just deliver speeches and then take our leave." Sean is a decently written role and Williams makes much of him. Angela (Eileen O'Connell) is more effective than the other characters in terms of originality and vitality, but Byrne the writer and Byrne the director have been unable to shape this piece around its strengths rather than its weaknesses, which include the titular character "Himself."

The secrets surrounding Michael emerge gradually throughout the evening. They seem calculated to draw us in, but the man remains essentially static; even Angela, whose compassion for him and brash, headstrong romanticism are bracingly realized by O'Connell, is unable to make us like Michael. Additionally, the decline of Byrne's senile father is difficult to believe because the relatively young actor-playwright-director has failed to don proper age makeup. (The dangers of one person taking on too many responsibilities in a production are clear in this case.)

Comic relief and a nice performance are provided by Patrick Tull, whose talents -- previously displayed in such shows as The Crucible and The Master Builder -- do not find sufficient outlet in this piece. As the man who attends to Michael, he also carries secrets, but none of them become watersheds of any kind during the course of the play. With Colm Byrne wearing so many hats, Himself puts one in mind of a village that has only one doctor who attempts to do far too much for anyone's good. The play could be worthwhile in another staging, trimmed and directed by someone with an objective eye to its particular needs.

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