The Banished Children of Eve
Superlative stagecraft aplenty in the Irish Rep’s adaptation of Peter Quinn’s novel about New York’s Civil War Draft Riots. Ciaran O’Reilly’s direction abounds in clever, eye-catching touches….from its swiveling cylinder of movable, curved stage flats…to backlight and silhouette to suggest rioting masses and a blazing city….to a moving pageant-like charivari of Lower East Side denizens that opens and closes our peek into this world. And the performances are largely terrific, notably the versatile David Lansbury as a drunken Irish minstrel man, Patrice Johnson as a feisty West Indian fishwife, and Malcolm Gets, who tickles the ivories and supplies a lovely Irish tenor in the role of songwriter Stephen Foster, then at the very end of his life.
Moreover, the cross-section of characters and the story arc are just right to communicate this historical episode. There are two plots: in one, an interracial couple plan their escape to Canada and attempt to protect their adopted African American child; in the other, a second-generation Irishman woos a pretty colleen, ostensibly as part of a plot to rob her native-born boss (and of course falls in love with her, disrupting his plans). The weak link in the chain is the dialogue, penned by playwright Kelly Younger. It’s crude, clumsy stuff, all “on-the-nose”, and telegraphed blather, 50% exposition and 50% message. The worst written character (as is often the case in such well-meaning didactic exercises) is the nativist villain of the piece (Graeme Malcolm) who seems to have nothing better to do in life than to wander on and offstage at inopportune times and say racist things. If it’s meant to be a twist on the old melodrama, the style of the production doesn’t match it. I think it shows all the signs of being too much like the new melodrama, the stuff of made-for-tv movies.
Still, I think this would be a very good educational show for young people to see. Yes, it might be controversial (the N word is used, along with “mick” and “paddy”) but it would be an excellent way for them to learn about the past struggles of the downtrodden, and to start thinking about what the latter-day analogues might be. (In say…Arizona, for example?)