By Patrick Hurley
Some wounds never heal. This is the less-than-optimistic core of Corktown ’57, making its world premiere through May 3 at the Odyssey Theatre.Centering on the Keating family, a group of Irish immigrants in Philadelphia in 1957, the play deals with family, and all the many levels of dysfunction that that entails. The entire play takes place in the basement of Frank Keating (John Ruby) and his wife Janice (Natalie). And it deals with the return of Frank’s older brother John (Andrew Connolly) a general in the British army who was disowned by his Irish Republic loving family. Reuniting Frank’s father Mike (Nick Tate) and sisters Kaitlin (Rebecca Tilney) and Marie (Belen Greene) is anything but a sweet family reunion. Having been given only a few months to live, patriarch Mike wants to regain his status within the Irish community and he is scheming with Kaitlin and Marie’s husband Ciaran (Kevin P. Kearns). John claims that his visitation is a warning to Kaitlin, who it seems has been fundraising for the IRA, and is on a British watch list. Meanwhile, Frank and Janice are having marital troubles after suffering the death of a child. There’s quite a bit of story going on here.
On one level, this all works as a perfectly fine well-made play, and follows a nice set-up/crisis/resolution formula. There are enough stakes from the beginning to keep the dramatic tension just right, and the actions of the characters are justifiable and believable. On another level, it doesn’t quite work as a character study. Though it seems to be trying to succeed as both a plot-driven and character-driven drama, there is simply too much plot happening to ever really invest fully in these characters. So the result is a strong well-made play that keeps us interested, but never evokes. It misses the emotional impact. Despite the very capable direction of Wilson Milam, who, even with too many blackouts, keeps the story on point and rolling along smoothly. The set, designed by Joel Daavid creates the tone and feel of a basement, circa 1957. There are small details like the condition of the walls, the hard cement floor, and the overhanging lighting that makes us feel transported. And all of the performers do their part in creating this world, and making us believe in it.
As Frank, John Ruby is the perfect mixture of amiable and exasperated. A balancing act that he maintains in order to allow Frank’s arc to be earned. As Mike, Nick Tate plays gruff and ornery to the hilt. He’s a caustic old crank who seems to revel in his own bad behavior. Natalie Britton gives a nicely realized performance as Janice, in a role that could pass by without much notice, she infuses her with a sincerity that makes her relatable and, more importantly, watchable. 12 year old Jonah Beres does a fantastic job as John and Natalie’s son Johnny. He slips in and out of scenes with ease and solid comic timing. Andrew Connolly really shines here. His John is perfectly stoic, with an undercurrent of antipathy that ever so slowly reveals itself. It’s a beautifully rendered portrayal.
Even with these nicely layered performances, wonderfully designed set, and capable direction the play never excels. Playwright John Fazakerley has chosen the medium of theater, but the theatricality of the piece is what’s missing. The episodic nature of the play feels like a dated, scene-by-scene piece of naturalistic theater. With this being a world premiere the element of “new” seems a natural expectation, and that is simply not the case. The blackouts in-between scenes, as a means of time shifting, slows the pace a little, and gives it a very prescriptive traditional feel. There is nothing wrong, however, with the execution of a traditional play. It’s just this perhaps has a television/cinematic quality that undermines the theatricality. The need for verisimilitude, much like is possible with film, a new style of hyper-realism is popular at the moment. This is not an example of that either. The fact that it takes place in 1957 makes it slightly nostalgic, even if it’s not trying to be. So in the end, this feels like the capable staging of a well-made play of thirty or more years ago. Probably more a flaw of the current state of American theater than just this production. But one that is worth pointing out.
By John Fazakerley
Directed by Wilson Milam
Through May 3
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90025