BWW Feature: THE FINAL DAYS OF WOLFE TONE Brings Passion and Rebellion to Tennessee Performing Arts Center
THE FINAL DAYS OF WOLFE TONE by playwright Peter Danish tells story of a man who led the Irish rebellion against the British in 1798 and is one not just of historical documentation, but holds modern day relevance as well.
When Danish read Tone's autobiography, which was written during his final days before execution, he knew he wanted to bring the story to life somehow. But it wasn't until 30 years later that he would finally get that chance
While the story of Wolfe Tone takes place almost 220 years ago, Danish cites a striking passage that draws parallels to modern day society - so much so that he uses it verbatim to open the fourth scene of the play. "'Would you believe one percent of the population holds 44 percent of the wealth in Boston.' This was a direct quote from his biography 230 years ago and I said 'wow, that could be today,' Danish admits.
"It was astonishing to me. And as I kept reading from there, it spoke of an oligarchy very similar to what we're seeing start to happen here. The more I read, the more the parallels became brutally apparent and I said 'this is not just a historical play, this has absolute relevance.'" Brian Maffitt, who plays the British guard holding Tone until his death, agrees. "There is a lot in the show that you can connect the dots to the way the world is operating today in terms of what are we told versus what is real," he says.
Ciaran Sheehan, former star of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and LES MISERABLES, portrays the rebellious Tone, who dictates his life story to his friend Tom Wilson disguised disguised as a priest. For Sheehan, it's the emotion behind Tone's journey that drew him to the role. "For me what was compelling is not so much him as much as the journey that Peter's created. The revelation of someone's soul and them kind of finding themselves in life," Sheehan explains of the journey Tone goes on to confront the decisions he's made in life. "I think it's about a man's journey."
While Maffitt portrays the opposition as the prison guard, he reveals that his character is not created as a menacing "brute" like he could've been. "I always like exploring characters that are on the page, maybe kind of bad guys and try to find the humanity in them...I think he's actually a very interesting character, he has a journey of his own," he admits.
Peter Cormican, the actor behind Tone's confidant and scribe Wilson, describes his character as a "clear-thinking" observer of life in juxtaposition to Tone's more radical ways. Though "very highly sympathetic" to his friend, he offers a dose of honesty and challenges Tone when need be. But Sheehan relays that Wilson is so much more than that for Tone. "I think you succeed because I think you get me to fully to acknowledge what's really important in my life," Sheehan says emotionally in reference to Wilson's kinship. "It's funny that you're in a priestly garb because in a way, the only thing that you're trying to steer me towards is love."
While Tone is a traitor in the eyes of the British people, Maffitt confesses that the guard learns more about the rebel while hearing his stories band begins to see him from a new point of view. "I think against his better judgment, the guard comes to have a grudging respect for his prisoner," Maffitt says. "He finds out that he's [Tone] a person with his own perspective and his own point of view and one country's freedom fighter is another country's terrorist...He allows the journey to happen so that he can find out more about them."
Though a relatively dark story that takes place during the last days of a man's life, Danish admits that one of the many elements that inspired him to tell Tone's story was his sense of humor in such a tumultuous time. "He was ribald - he had this gallous humor that I said almost just defied someone who was going to the gallows. Everything he commented on had some kind of a joke attached to it," Danish says of Tone's attitude. Sheehan also noticed this sense of humor in his character that he almost uses as a cloaking devise for his emotions. "I found that, through this play, whenever anything starts to get emotional or frightening in any way, he goes right to the humor. It's his way of actually avoiding things," the actor says.
And Tone possesses many respectable qualities, Sheehan says it's "his desire to act with a clear conscience" is what he admires most about the character. "To try to base all of the decisions he makes in life about trying to do the right thing, to try to do the honorable thing, and I admire that of being something to try to live as well.
THE FINAL DAYS OF WOLFE TONE is at TPAC's AnDrew Johnson Theatre March 12 - 13.