The phrase “blast from the past” usually connotes some sort of loud noise. This isn’t necessarily true, however, with the altogether welcome return of I Knock at the Door and Pictures in the Hallway, now running in repertory at Theater Three. Directed by Stuart Vaughan — who first directed them in 1957 — they’re mostly muted, frequently amusing, occasionally quite stirring concert readings of Paul Shyre’s adaptations of Sean O’Casey’s gritty memoirs.
In this context, “concert reading” isn’t a lightly chosen description. Because music is a potent element of the classy enterprise — there’s much incidental flute music recorded by Evie Joselow — “concert reading” is more like a play on words. Moreover, O’Casey, who began publishing the volumes in 1939 as he neared 60, is one of the great stylists in English, so there’s the concert-hall-worthy music of his language. The opening paragraph of Pictures in the Hallway establishes that fact. “An October sky was black over the whole of Dublin,” O’Casey writes in a ruminative mood. “Not a single star had traveled into the darkness; and a bitter rain was pelting down on the silent streets. The rain had the still and unresisting city to itself.”
Indeed, the instant both evenings begin, O’Casey — best known for his volatile dramas The Plough and the Stars, Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock — works his spell. They offer a portrait of one young man’s hardscrabble growing up in a Dublin torn by political and religious turmoil. As such, they’re chockablock with characters lending themselves to musical expressions in a series of dramatic situations. The six actors sitting on stools behind six music stands and intricately lighted by Bart Healy, have the music of their tenor, baritone, and mezzo voices to offer as well as the silent music of their expressions and gestures. The ensemble is led by Grant Kretchik as the O’Casey stand-in, Johnny Cassidy. Fluidly doubling and tripling in other roles are Salome Jens, Gil Rogers, Nancy McNulty, John FitzGibbon, and Craig Rising.
As they flip manuscript pages and never directly engage each other, they make beautiful music together. The curly-headed and handsome Kretchik never stops reacting to what’s happening around his maturing character. He makes a smooth transition from beset childhood to young manhood as Johnny awakens to the ramifications of his conflicted Irish heritage. He also eventually allows shyly excited interest in the opposite sex. Jens, still beautiful at 72, is sweetly maternal yet steely when necessary as impoverished Mrs. Cassidy. McNulty, an auburn beauty, plays with alluring skill the subtly aggressive young women in Johnny’s busy life. McNulty and Rising acquit themselves admirably as numerous vital Dubliners, and Rogers brings urgency to his narrator assignment.
Revered for revolutionizing Irish theater by introducing lower-class life to the stage along with John Millington Synge, O’Casey decided in the first two books of his six-volume autobiography to depict the innumerable indigenous influences that led to his often assailed playwriting career. From I Knock at the Door, Shyre focused on Cassidy’s early years when he suffered the torment of an ulcerated eye condition that intermittently kept him from schooling and worried his mother’s hopes for his future. The galvanizing episode here is his being unfairly punished by a martinet of a teacher during one of his school stays. Nevertheless, happier times are often depicted through the inclusion of several ditties from what might be considered the traditional 19th-century Irish Songbook. There’s also a sweet segment during which Johnny, memorizing Tennyson for his own amusement, is happened upon by a first-kiss-eager school girl.
The increasingly mesmerizing scenes of Johnny’s young manhood, as Shyre culls them from Pictures in the Hallway, include a brother’s illness, demonstrations against England’s involvement in the Boer War, and the loss of an early menial job over a two shilling fine. Incidentally, voracious reader O’Casey had hoped to put those shillings towards purchase of John Milton’s works. What Shyre chooses to leave out of O’Casey’s account is that after he’d been fined, Johnny steals the book. Perhaps the edit is in the interest of not sacrificing any sympathy for young Johnny.
Because even at it most inflammatory moments, the two O’Casey entries remain modulated, these presentations may not be for all tastes. For others, however, they’re tasty as a nourishing loaf of Irish soda bread.