BWW Reviews: Actor Brian Dennehy Makes THE STEWARD OF CHRISTENDOM Worthwhile
Thomas Dunne (Brian Dennehy) was historically speaking the Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) and a Catholic loyal to the British crown, responsible for maintaining the established order in a time of revolution....hardly an easy position for one to find himself in 1932 when radical change came to Ireland in the guise of the Irish Free State. There was independence but it came at a high cost as Irish nationalists raged against each other in a bloody civil war.
As Sebastian Barry's 1995 play opens, Dunne is lying in isolation in the psychiatric ward of an Irish hospital hallucinating events of his past...bringing in fragmented glimpses of his children and his actions, one of which caused four deaths and his resultant sentencing...he appears to be losing it before our very eyes. Two attendants Smith (James Lancaster) and Mrs. O'Dea (Mary-Pat Green) come in to wash him and measure him for a new suit and through their brief comments and interrogations we learn why Dunne is there, his state of mind about the new regime, Michael Collins and other political figures, and his befuddled attitude in general. He is a lost man, trying to make sense of his actions, his loyalties and to find some kind of forgiveness from God. His three daughters Annie (Abby Wilde), Maud (Kalen Harriman) and Dolly (Carmela Corbett) make entrances alone and together as memories flash through his rattled brain and we are left to put the pieces together into some coherent picture puzzle. Also flashing in from time to time is a little boy, his son who was killed in the war, Willie Dunne (Grant Palmer, Daniel Weinstein). When he was killed, Dunne describes his agony as he cried himself to sleep with Willie's coat over his face. There is also a visit from a recruit and son-in-law Matt (Dylan Saunders), again called forth from Dunne's emotionally tortured mind. These are indeed bleak images, depressing and difficult to bear and to fully understand, but it is crystal clear that Barry wishes us to see the ravages of war and how incapacitated it leaves its victims.
Within Steven Robman's fluid staging, Brian Dennehy offers a brilliantly grim, realistic portrait of the tortured spirit that is left of Dunne, ranting and howling in nightmare, even straitjacketed at one point as he is told by Smith and O'Dea that he has awakened and unsettled the other patients in the ward below. Lancaster and Green are both marvelous in their sterile, yet not totally unsympathetic attitudes toward Dunne. Both add moments of much needed humor, he wearing a cowboy costume from a party he was attending and she, brandishing about some yellow thread that she has used to sew into the lining of Dunne's new suit. Both loyal and dutiful servants doing their best, most likely indicative of how Dunne himself performed in executing his own job. Wilde, Harriman and Corbett are all good as they try to deal with their father's madness. The boy playing Willie does not speak, but sings in a lovely boyish soprano voice. Though the voice seems recorded, not live, its vibrant echo is yet another loose fabric of Dunne's instability. There is one very poignant scene where Smith and Dunne share an understanding of the young boy's loss, as Dunne presents a letter he received from Willie in the trenches.
The Steward of Christendom is not for everyone. As a matter of fact, many left their seats at intermission and did not return, but depressing as it is, it is worth seeing for the irrepressible Brian Dennehy, literally in the raw, wailing against life's cruelties like King Lear and begging forgiveness. The very last scene is the payoff, as he lies in the bed, cuddling the broken body of the tiny boy, delivering a heartfelt speech about a father's mercy. It is unrelentingly gnawing, gut-wrenching and unforgettable.