Playwright Jaki McCarrick has premiered, "The Naturalists," going on now at the Walkerspace Theater in TriBeca at 46 Walker Street and presented by The Pond Theatre Company from September 7th to 23rd. The play is directed by Colleen Clinton and Lily Dorment, and stars John Keating, Michael Mellamphy, Tim Ruddy, and Sarah Street. Street, Clinton, and Dorment are the co-founders of the Pond Theatre Company, which has a much-needed mission of bringing Irish and British theater to the United States – hence, over the Atlantic “pond.” This is an excellent play and is not to be missed.
The play tells the story of Francis and Billy Sloane, two brother farmers who are sequestered away from the world on their estate in Ireland. Francis hires Josie as a housekeeper, and the goal is to have Josie help the brothers move from their mobile home trailer on the farm to a house on the land the brothers are in the process of refinishing. In the play’s second act, gangster John-Joe Doherty comes to the farm to wreak havoc on the three main characters.
The play unfolds to reveal Francis Sloane was part of The Troubles, specifically the 1979 Narrow Waters Massacre, where IRA terrorists bombed eighteen British soldiers. The Troubles were a series of terrorist acts in the 20th century of Irish nationalist Catholics, in the mainland south of the island, against royalist Protestants in the north. The northerners sided with the British -- seen as colonizers to the IRA -- which made them resort to terrorism with the hopes of reunifying the island.
Playwright Jaki McCarrick has a straightforward plot to this play. In the first act, she introduces the brothers to Josie, and this exposition shows Francis to have mended his ways. Francis served a jail sentence for his crimes with the IRA, and now only wants to be a peaceful naturalist. In the second act, John-Joe appears hoping to reclaim money from the terrorist robberies, and thus serves as a doppelganger opposite of Josie. Actor Michael Mellamphy excels in the boorish, lip-smacking villain. So, McCarrick takes good thing Josie, bad thing John-Joe, and in the final scenes of the play, smashes the four together. In doing so, McCarrick comments symbolically that Ireland itself as a people may be able to transcend its terrible past.
John-Joe’s evil gangster is reminiscent of gangster The Misfit from Irish-American author Flannery O’Connor in her story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” There, as in this play, a gangster raids a family and the story reveals the meddle of its characters. Thankfully, the brothers Sloane beat John-Joe in “The Naturalists.” In O’Connor’s story, her main characters aren’t so lucky. O’Connor’s story is another path McCarrick might have taken, but did not.
The Irish and Irish Americans have special significance as a race of people racked with happiness and grief, and these emotions are related. While Irish drinking certainly has connotations of good times and bad times, a deeper understanding would say Ireland had some legitimate reasons to drink from the poverty caused by colonialism, misfortune such as the Irish Famine, and isolation. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was a nonfiction memoir of deep poverty in 20th century Ireland. One of the book’s scenes talks about searching for coal in the gutter. More recently, Niall Williams’ History of the Rain is a fictional survey of an Irish family of farmers on the brink of disaster, as the narrator slowly succumbs to leukemia and her father dies from a brain tumor. McCourt connects his family’s poverty to greater social economic crisis, and Williams doesn’t focus on politics in his work, however the sentiments of tragedy and grief are apparent in these two works.
oth McCourt and Williams find important significance in reading and writing. This love of literature, story, and narrative is indeed a thread and a lesson that the Irish love a good story. McCarrick winks at this literary tradition in a heartwarming scene where Josie and Francis look at the books of the Sloane house. Francis gives a book to Josie, which though it is a gesture of kindness – has significance of hope that the book will help Josie and make her happy. When Josie leaves for bed, Francis stacks a pile of books for bedtime reading like an all-you-can-eat buffet, and comically crashes in the hallway.
McCarrick’s work has important significance this year, as Brexit has brought new distress to Ireland. Because the United Kingdom was part of the European Union with Ireland, borders opened following the Good Friday Agreements in the 1990’s. With this and separately from the detente, Ireland’s economy has rebounded from the 2000’s financial crash, and generally the country is doing better than it ever has. McCarrick’s highest hope for this play is -- just like the Sloanes and their friend Josie -- the country will be able to make peace with the past. At the end of the play, her meditative naturalist Francis Sloane finds solace and comfort despite his tragic past. Maybe the Irish will, too.