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A CurtainUpSan Francisco Review
Celebrated novelist Edna O'Brien has returned to San Francisco's Magic Theatre for the American premiere of Family Butchers, her openly autobiographical play. The rather old-fashioned though brutal family saga originated in London as Our Father but is said to have been re-written for its American debut.
As directed by Paul Whitworth, who also directed Magic's award-winning production of O'Brien's Triptych, either title is apt for this rather long, insular, but fierce family melodrama set in the writer's native Ireland. The problem, however, is with the play, not the direction. So admired is the vivacious, attractive O'Brien that evidently nobody dared suggest more revelatory development and some much needed final act trimming.
If you're Irish, or have ever been related to one of that beleaguered race, you'll not be surprised by the sharp-tongued, even mean-spirited, verbal interactions between this scattered family come together for the parents' wedding anniversary. While Ms. O'Brien approaches the complicated relationships of this large Irish clan with the severe eye and incisive humor that has marked her writing career, there's little joy in it.
After an interesting mood-setting opening with an Irish fiddle and drum, the lights go up on the living rooms of a once grand Georgian manor house. Jamie O'Shea, the family patriarch, comes striding down the staircase into the main room dressed in riding breeches. Perfectly portrayed by Robertson Dean, Jamie is dashing and vigorous -- and blatantly self absorbed and conceited. He goes to a small wall mirror to shave and admire himself, chanting, "Big day . . . big day. You show 'em boy . . . you show 'em who's master . . . monarch of all I survey . . . ."
Meanwhile his unprepossessing wife Lil (Esther Mulligan), still in her flannel nightgown, is dashing about preparing for the grand family dinner and excitedly awaiting her brood of four children. First to arrive is the family's youngest, Emer, soon to be revealed as the favorite child. Described a glamorous, successful writer now living in London, she's O'Brien's alter ego, but portrayed prettily by Anne Francisco Worden, Emer, unlike the other volatile O'Shea siblings, seems strangely passive and distant.
Next to arrive the family homestead comes middle sister Peg, all the way from South Africa. She's played with wit and style by Patricia Miller. While expressing her feelings of alienation, she confesses to Emer her longing to reconnect with her parents. Emer seems fond of Peg, but they don't have any apparent long standing connection. They talk of old boyfriends and forgotten dreams, but sketchily. Emer reveals nothing. Although the most appealing of all the girls, Peg never gets through to either of her parents.
Teddy (Mark Phillips), the only O'Shea son, and his recent bride Carmel (Laura Hope) provide energy and amusement with their arrival from Dublin. Carmel is rife with annoying attributes - -a silly cliché laugh and apparent greedy inclinations. The couple's tired games and avaricious schemes are presented without any backstory. Their plan to take the family home away from the others is declared, but not necessarily to be believed.
Eldest daughter Helen (Joan Harris-Gelb) arrives last, and so shy and lethargic is she that I assumed she was the servant girl come to help with the feast which Jamie expects as a grand display for his "Big Day." As Jamie speaks expansively of the pate foie gras .and Chateauneuf du Pape he's ordered on his overdue credit, w learn that Helen lives nearby with her own growing family and is taken for granted as the good child who never can do enough for eiher her demanding father or her enigmatic mother.
In spite of his pretensions Jamie plans to ask his children to help him out with his mounting debts. Except for Emer, however, his children have their own designs on Jamie's supposed wealth. Peg is still waiting for her long-promised dowry. Teddy, urged on by Carmel, insists he's been promised the farm which Helen believes has been pledged to her.
As the play progresses there are scenes hinting at incestuous leanings toward Emer in the father's fawning attentions to his "little girl." However, Emer never shows any emotion in these scenes. In fact the entire play is unusually lacking in sexual tension, especially curious since Edna O'Brien is well known for her frank explorations of women's sexuality, failed love affairs, predatory relationships, not to mention, personal redemption.
An oddly unconvincing scene between Emer and her mother Lil has Emer affectionately start to wash her mother's feet which sets off an explosive exchange over Lil's shame regarding her daughter's scandalous novels. Jamie goes storming off to the local pub with the grotesque and disheveled farmhand Gurnet (Ian Scott McGregor) -- who's so peculiarly depicted that he at times appears retarded, like a character out of the Dark Ages but at other times is seen engaged in his master's money-making schemes.
A major problem is that Jamie is so domineering and Dean's portrayal so dynamic and vital that all the other characters fade into insignificance. The last act is all his, as well it should be. In fact those final scenes are tragic and surprising enough not to be revealed here. And yet, the play would have ended more satisfactorily with some much needed reconciliation at the end of Act Two.
Editor's Note: For a review of O'Brien's Triptych at the Irish Rep in New York go here.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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