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The Freedom of the City
It is 1970 as armed soldiers their guns at the ready are clearing the cobblestone streets and looking for “trouble-makers” near the Guildhall in Derry in Northern Ireland. A peaceful Civil Rights protest has somehow ignited an aggressive response from the authorities suddenly turning violent with the sound of gun shots. It’s comforting to know that the fierce-looking soldiers have been advised to not confront the patrons as they take their seats at the Irish Repertory Theater for a gripping and moving performance of Brian Friel’s 1973 play The Freedom of the City. They are, however, looking for the three people on the run who have been seen entering the side entrance of the Guildhall.
Citizens have marred the stone walls of their town with such invectives as “Get the British Out” and “You Are Now Entering Free Derry,” in set designer Charlie Corcoran evocative set, its dominating stone walls and arches serving various locations as this provocative play moves back and forth in time. Friel’s notably poignant perspective provides insight into the lives of three ordinary human beings, as well as it presents, through an official inquiry, the so-called facts and circumstances that pertain to their death.
A common idiom and a proverb leaped into my mind, as they may also to you, after seeing this fine play. “Being in the wrong place at the wrong time” and “Don’t leap before you look.” They are reminders of how rarely are we able to foresee the consequences of our impulsive actions. In Friel’s most political play, we are present as three people are unwittingly caught in the maelstrom of religious and ideological warfare. Despite an event that takes place thirty-two years ago, it concerns, among its other social and political issues, the disenfranchisement of voters. It is one of the timeliest and topical plays presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre in a while.
Theater-goers who may be most aware and acquainted with this Irish Playwright’s 1964 early success Philadelphia Here I Come, his popular 1980 Translations, and his most renowned and award-winning 1990 Dancing at Lughnasa, have been afforded a nice opportunity this season to fill in a couple of gaps so they may more fully appreciate his laudable canon. In addition to this rewarding, stirringly acted production that has launched the 25th anniversary of this consistently admirable theatre company, there is still time to augment your familiarity with his plays with the current Off Broadway revival of the TACT company's revival of the 1964 Lovers.
For The Freedom of the City, Friel culled events directly from the Civil Rights Association March on January 30, 1972 that was to become known as “Bloody Sunday,” during which a British regiment opened fire on the protesters killing thirteen. He has contrived a deliberately unsettling picture of how ordinary citizens are craftily and deliberately made scapegoats and turned into symbols.
What an invigorated trio these unarmed marchers are as they appear in an almost congratulatory mood when they find themselves in the elegant and well-stocked (with wine, whiskey and cigars) Mayor’s parlor soon after voicing their protests. They have barely escaped the ensuing firing on the protesters by a British regiment, the tear gas and the tanks that are coming down the street. They are Lily (Cara Seymour), an impoverished cleaning woman and mother of eleven children; Michael (James Russell), an idealistic student; and Skinner (Joseph Sikora), a jocular minor-league rabble-rouser, all of whom believe for too short a time that they have found quite a lovely place to rest and recoup.
Sadly, they are soon enough able to see, as they peer out of the stained glass windows of the parlor, the increase in the troops being assembled. Also outside are the opinion makers, politicos, a priest, military intelligence personnel, and various witness, each of whom will have a say as to the danger and the possible motives of the fugitives, their number somehow and suddenly calculated to be anywhere from forty to one hundred. From what was initially assessed as “an occupation” is rapidly determined to be a full out raid by terrorists.
Through a series of flashbacks to the day of the fateful event, each framed by the various testimony given at the tribunal. The tribunal, with its presiding Judge (John C. Vennema) appears out of the dark on the side of the stage. During it, we listen to the witnesses and others as they are called upon to present their views and perspective.
As unnerved as we are by the way the facts are either re-arranged, distorted or simply ignored to suit the purpose of the obviously biased tribunal, our hearts and minds are fixed on the three as they share a growing and spirited camaraderie. They playfully adorn themselves with a collection of the Mayor’s official red robes, as they endeavor to bond as best they can during the crisis.
The acting, under the impeccable direction of Ciarán O’Reilly, is uniformly excellent. Seymour gives a hearty and heartbreaking performance as Lilly, whose decision to march has scarcely to do with religious tolerance, but rather a plea for compensation for a mentally disabled son. Predictably infuriating is how she and all poor people are chillingly defined by a condescending sociologist Dr. Dobbs (Christa Scott-Reed) as being part of a subculture that isn’t “geared to take advantage of changing conditions and increased opportunities.”
We can feel the certainty that things will not go well in Russell’s agitated performance as Michael, who has participated in every civil rights march, but is keenly aware how “hooligans” are now changing the tone of previously peaceful protests. The husky Sikora is splendid as the “flippant” Skinner who, despite being a “hooligan,” injects into the play a robust theatricality, “Mayor’s robes, alderman’s robes, counselor’s robes. Put them on and I’ll give you both the freedom of the city.”
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