Mourning Becomes A Long Day’s Journey
Onstage, Mama’s corpse might by lying cold in her coffin, but it’s the ghost of Eugene O’Neill that haunts Phillip McMahon’s latest play “Come On Home.” An alcohol fuelled interrogation of a dysfunctional Irish family, “Come On Home” follows three brothers through their secrets and self aware confessionals as they gather to wake their dear departed Mother. The parlour walls may be dripping with resentment, but they’re held together by layers of masculine sentimentality in a patchy tale that thrives when it stays rooted to the ground, but flounders when it tries to fly.
Is home where the heart is? Can you still come home when you feel you’ve no home left to go to? Or can home be reconstituted to embrace the new? Ray, Michael, and Brian might be linked by blood and history, but there’s very little else bonding these three rural brothers aside from a sense of failing, of being failed, and a failed sense of family. Ray, the youngest, has failed to keep the family shop from going under. The angry, alpha male, Brian, has failed to come to terms with his horrific past. The returning prodigal, Michael, who failed to become a priest, fleeing the seminary for a guilt filled London where his homosexuality felt less like a crime, is also a victim of the past, which, like his parents and the Church, failed him and his brothers. A past, like the deceased matriarch, that is hated as much as it is sentimentalised. As is the nostalgic future towards which they are all still pining. As Mama’s wake shifts from confessional finger pointing to emotional showdowns, it’s the women who emerge with any real agency, showing the way towards redemption. Aoife might be frustrated and trapped, and now pregnant with Ray’s child, but she already has plans for getting out and getting her life together. Brian’s world weary wife, Martina, might not have that option, but she has a survivor’s instinct and a diva’s smarts, and a heart that refuses to be crushed or made victim, even if she doesn’t want you to know it.
In McMahon’s O’Neill-lite script, alcohol helps loosens lips to allow men say what they really feel in the furnace of the family home. The women might also partake, but they’ve no real need of alcohol to help them say what they want to say, even if, like the men, it helps numb the pain. Indeed, McMahon’s smart and compelling observations around the ordinariness of his characters and the everyday nature of pain proves to be “Come On Home’s” irresistible strength, punctured, often a little too neatly, by some well timed humour. Yet when it attempts to move from the ordinary to the redemptive, it often falls down, one highly sentimentalised, but hugely successful dance sequence aside. Indeed, its dramatic foundation shifts from a powerful naturalism to something more in keeping with Doris Day’s Secret Love, hitting hard with sentimentality and sapping its real strength, all after an astonishingly compelling build up. A situation compounded by an uneasy ending. Having woven an intricate and intriguing tale, the end disappointingly, and unconvincingly, tries to tack on a barely developed sub-plot by conveniently, and unskilfully, reintroducing a character who was onstage for a mere matter of minutes. One with whom neither care, nor relationship, has been adequately established. All to reveal a badly served, lopsided love story that deserves to be a play in itself. After some stellar work, this surprisingly disappointing wrap up, indulging in an obvious polemic blame game, feels as if the play no longer trusted itself and resorted to explaining everything. Which is a shame, as “Come On Home” was doing magnificently well up till this point.
Director Rachel O’Riordan does a sterling job mining the rich dramatic moments in McMahon’s character driven script, crafting some powerful performances, even if accents are untidy at times. Ian Lloyd Anderson is endlessly impressive as the endearing Ray, the baby of the group. Billy Carter does remarkably well as Michael, the least convincing or compelling of the brothers courtesy of the under developed, tacked on story. As does Seán O’Callaghan as Father Aidan Cleary, and Des Nealon as the traditionalist priest, Father Seamus. Declan Conlon is riveting as big brother Brian, explosive in his rage, channelling the dark energy of one of the plays most obvious, yet powerful themes. A terrific Kathy Rose O’Brien as the no nonsense Aoife, and a sublime Aislín McGuckin as the acerbic Martina, are both simply breathtaking, lighting up the stage and worth the price of admission alone. Colin Richmond’s sharply articulated, naturalist set and costumes prove functional and effective, if not necessarily compelling, as does Kevin Tracey’s lighting design, opening night irregularities aside.
Like Tarantino, McMahon is wonderful in his everyday observances and depictions of character. Yet emotive attempts to explain, justify, or elucidate their lives don’t always land. Like the proverbial finger pointing to the moon, “Come On Home” directs us to look, yet when we do we often find the sky heavily overcast, despite the elegance of the finger. Yet, sentimentality aside, there’s an emotional honesty to “Come On Home” that’s always addictive, and its performances are simply magnificent.
“Come On Home” by Phillip McMahon, runs at The Peacock stage of The Abbey Theatre until August 4
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