BWW Review: THE FINAL DAYS OF WOLFE TONE Strikes a Powerful Chord at Tennessee Performing Arts Center
When reading the description of THE FINAL DAYS OF WOLFE TONE, you wouldn't expect it to be a comedy. And while it technically doesn't fall into that category, it's clear within the first few minutes of the show that humor is a common thread weaved throughout the production that made its mark on a captivated crowd at TPAC's AnDrew Johnson Theatre on Mon., March 13.
Set in 1793, the production tells the story of Wolfe Tone (Ciaran Sheehan), the leader of the Irish rebellion in his attempt to free the country from the grips of the British crown. WOLFE TONE takes place during his final days before the protagonist's execution when friend Tom Wilson (Peter Cormican) disguises himself as a priest, serving as Tone's benefactor and scribe as he dictates his life story to ensure a lasting legacy. Playwright Peter Danish captures the story masterfully, turning a potentially dry subject into a fascinating tale of power, dark humor and redemption.
Sheehan is impeccable as the title character, playing a commanding, yet sensitive Tone who, even while staring death in the face, manages to find the humor in life, a theme we can all relate to, cracking joke after joke while shackled in heavy chains (Tone himself asks for forgiveness for his "gallous humor"). The British guard (Brian Maffitt), while not in Tone's original autobiography, adds an even more emotional touch to an already captivating story.
Just one of the many interesting elements of the show is the fact that this historical tale actually bares quite a resemblance to modern day times. A fascinating moment comes when Tone speaks about his trip to the newly founded America and his perception of the Bill of Rights, echoing similar phrases to modern day like "socialists," "tied to the purse" and "hypocrisy" being used in association to the country. Tone makes a compelling point when he says America has vast resources and plenty of opportunity "yet falls slave to vile commerce" and a bit of stir could be felt in the theatre when Wilson says our prejudices help make us who we are, adding an element of intrigue, and surprising relevance, to a story written more than two centuries ago
While there are several standout scenes in the show, a particularly poignant moment comes when the guard comes to check on Tone in the dead of night before his execution. He pulls over a stool outside the cell and in the dim candlelight tells Tone that while he does view him as a traitor, he does not believe he is a "bad man." The iron bars that separate the two are almost metaphorical at this point, as the personal walls between them come down. Maffitt has brought just as much comic relief to the show as Tone at this point, whether gleefully providing him with the gruesome details of his impending execution or playing along with his querulous games. But this scene takes his character far beyond the prison walls, showing off his compassionate side in an otherwise melancholy situation.
It's a wonder how a plot dating back 220 years ago can not only hold such reverence, but also entertainment quality, in 2017, but playwright Danish has managed to accomplish just that. Sheehan, Cormican and Maffitt all bring the story to life in a truly masterful way with their natural chemistry and ability to play off each other's personalities seamlessly.
THE FINAL DAYS OF WOLFE TONE offers a memorable experience in that it not only highlights an important moment in history, but also manages to draw comparisons to real life in a unique way. From Tone's contagious humor and wit, even during his final hours, to the surprisingly tender moments between Tone and his friend and the prison guard looming over him, WOLFE TONE brings to life a universal message: to find humor even in the darkest of times and seek peace through the power of redemption.