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A CurtainUp Review
Banished Children of Eve
By Elyse Sommer
While Younger's adaptation has a sufficient number of colorful characters through whom to dramatize the events of that volatile week, the play is too scattered and doesn't manage to weave the historic subtext more subtly into the personal drama. Consequently, what might have been a powerful action and emotion filled drama is not realized until the last part. Unfortunately, this is also the only time when the overarching presence of songwriter Stephen Foster isn't a case of wasted opportunities for using this character or making Malcom Gets, a gifted musical acto, who portrays him, seem less out of place.
To pile quibble upon quibble, the play's shortcomings aren't helped by Ciaran O'Reilly. This director, who has so successfully managed to e mount dramas that demand visually exciting staging within the confines of the Irish Rep's difficult stage (Another intriguingly staged historical drama Prisoner of the Crown and last year's The Emperor Jones come to mind) has in this case overburdened the production with staging that is impressive given the size of the venue, but turns out to be too complex and clunky. This adds to the sense of a production that awkwardly sandwiches in historical opinions instead of keeping things firmly focused on the emotional aspects of the lives devastatingly caught up in the trauma of the out-of-control reaction to the draft.
The central plot revolves around the performers in a minstrel show, which per the prevailing law of the day didn't hire black actors. Thus Irish immigrant Jack Mulcahey (a passionate David Lansbury) is the show's blackface male star and the light-skinned Eliza (an excellent performance by Amber Gray), is the show's star by virtue of claiming to be Cuban, instead of acknowledging her connection to Euphemia (an aptly somewhat mysterious Patrice Johnson), the black street vendor who raised her and doesn't trust Jack to bring off his promise to take her to Canada where they can act in parts more worthy of their talents. As Euphemia nurtured the young Eliza, so Eliza and Jack have more or less adopted Squirt (a quite endearing Christopher Borger), a young black teenager who Jack found living in the street. Squirt turns out to be the character most endangered by the rampaging mobs of Irish for whom the draft act exacerbates their fears that the lates wave of immigrants — freed Southern slaves— will encroach upon their job security.
There's also a secondary plot which involve Jimmy (Jonny Orsini), a poor but American-born young man who is less than eager to don a uniform and so, to raise the $300 dollars needed to buy one's way out of the draft, succumbs to a robbery scheme by the play's villain Waldo Capshaw (Graeme Malcolm as nasty a piece of work as you could wish for probably based on a real life Tammany Hall figure). Jimmy's role in the scheme is to sweet talk Margaret (Amanda Quaid), an eager for fun Irish immigrant in order for Capshaw to find the keys and use them while Jimmy takes her on a date. The date leads to -- you guessed it -- a performance of J the minstrel show's star feature, a replay of Eliza's attempted escape in Uncle Tom's Cabin.
As the marauding gangs close in on the Bowery where the Minstrel Show is staged everyone ends up in a seedy nearby hotel. Squirt's safety becomes increasingly hazardous, Margaret realizes that she's been duped, and Capshaw proves himself to be much worse than a greedy burglar.
Malcolm Gets, who also arranged the music sings and plays his last great song, "Beautiful Dreamer" well but, as already mentioned, he seems mostly lost in this role. When his repeated pleadings to have his music for a more distinctive, operatic version of Uncle Tom's Cabin is actually realized in the last scene, The Banished Chidren of Eve finally soars briefly to its might-have-been heights.