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Rebel in the Soul
  I should have kept a closer eye on the unpredictable Dr. Browne but he was doing such capital work on his tuberculosis crusade, I scarcely noticed that he had shifted his attention to maternity and family issues. I trusted that any intelligent man would tread carefully on such sensitive ground in a Catholic country, particularly one run lock, stock and barrel by His Lord Highness John Charles McQuaid. — Sean McBride
John Keating (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
In Larry Kirwan's new docudrama Rebel in the Soul, which is making its world premiere at the Irish Repertory Theatre, the old questions about the separation of church and state resurface with a biting Irish accent. Directed by Charlotte Moore, this play looks into the shadowlands of Irish history and casts a spotlight on the dashing Dr. Noel Browne, who became the Irish Minister of Health in 1948. Browne would rid Ireland of tuberculosis and campaign for a "Mother and Child Health care Scheme" that would allow women and children under 16 to access healthcare for free.

Although Browne is a meaty enough character to merit a play of his own, Kirwan whips up a triple-decker drama that has Browne politically sparring with two other Irish politicians: party leader and ex-Irish Republican Army chief Sean MacBride and the crafty Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. John Charles McQuaid.

Kirwan employs the monologue as his chief dramatic device which allows his trinity of principals to exercise their verbal prowess and argue their specific political views. The monologues also provide exposition to serve up essential facts about mid-20th Century Irish history and to convey each speaker's stance on vital issues.

However, a string of monologues can also result in a loss of emotional power. While Kirwan does punctuate his script with more dynamic interchanges, the piece never completely flies.

That said, there are powerful moments, especially when the principals spar with each other or argue about the blurred boundaries between church and state in Catholic Ireland. Case in point: When Brown seeks the counsel and encouragement of MacBride on his "Child and Mother Health care Scheme" before meeting with the formidable prelate McQuaid, MacBride bluntly points out the futility of Browne's plan, weighting his remarks with a precedent from American history: "My God, man, don't you know who you're dealing with? For all his hydrogen bombs, the doctors even trumped Harry Truman when he tried to introduce health insurance in America."

Patrick Fitzgerald plays Dr. Noel Browne with just the right blending of intensity and boldness. His Browne is a forward-thinking'crusader, with a strong streak of stubborness. He brings pathos to his part when he summons up Browne's childhood memories of losing both parents and an older brother to tuberculosis 21. Fate stepped into the younger Brownes life and gave him opportunities to go to a Catholic prep school and later Trinity College. No, he didn't escape tuberculosis. But he didn't become its victim either. His fiancee and future wife Phyllis, in fact, managed to find funds to send him to England where he was treated with the latest medicines. Browne survived—and eventually thrived.

Sean Gormley performs the roles of the hardboiled party leader Sean MacBride and a no-nonsense physician. His MacBride never forgets that he's the son of the legendary Maude Gonne, and it immediately elevates him from the local riff-raff in Irish society. If Gormley's MacBride is one sharp politician, hes just as canny as a physician. In fact, the medical doctor saves Browne's life by advising him to go to England where a doctor has developed effective treatments.

John Keating is charismatic as Dr. John Charles McQuaid, Dublin's Archbishop. Although a staunch Roman Catholic and in synch with Papal teachings, he also has a softer human side and quotes lines from Patrick Kavanaugh's poetry and Seneca when the mood strikes him.

Sarah Street, as Browne's Protestant wife Phyllis adds a strong female presence. Though her part could be fleshed out more she's every inch a supportive wife and devoted mother.

Moore's staging provides little elbow room for the principals.   All remain on stage throughout, sitting at the edges of the performing space til their given scenes arrive. Michael Gottliebs chiaroscuro lighting is well-done, as is Linda Fishers realistic costume design.

A Rebel in the Soul is a solid diversion for who like their theater with a twist of politics. With all the buzz in the media about health care plans today, it's interesting to learn about a man who fought to give women and children free access to health care , regardless of their socio-economic class.

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Rebel in the Soul by Larry Kirwan
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Cast: Patrick Fitzgerald (Dr. Noël Browne) Sean Gormley (Seán MacBride), John Keating (Dr. John Charles McQuaid), Sarah Street (Phyllis Browne)
Sets: John McDermott
Costumes: Linda Fisher
Sound: M. Florian Staab
Lighting: Michael Gottlieb
Projection Design: Chris Kateff
Stage Manager: April Ann Kline
Irish RepertoryTheatre, 132 W 22nd St. Tickets: $50. Phone (212) 727-2737 or
From 4/12/17; opening 4/18/17; closing 5/21/17.
Wednesday @3pm & 8pm; Thursday @ 7pm; Friday @ 8pm; Saturday@ 3pm & 8 pm; Sunday matinee @ 3pm..
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 4/15/17

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