If they had walked into a bar, Kevin, Dermot, and Joe would have been no more than an obscure trio in the long tradition of Irish jokes.
But instead, they are part of the memorable fictional world of Conor McPherson’s 2002 play Port Authority, which I saw in 2008 at the Atlantic Theater Company, and again today in the closing performance at the Irish Repertory Theatre, under the direction of Ciaran O'Reilly. It is one of the joys of theatergoing, to see different stagings of the same play.
Our characters are in a ferry dock waiting room in Dublin harbor, erroneously referred to as bus station by many critics back in 2008, I guess because New York's Port Authority is a bus terminal. But that was the jetty of Dublin harbor on the Playbill cover. The set at the Irish Rep was more successful in conveying the time/place, with the blue sky over a horizon of water.
Each of our trio is a million miles away in his own thoughts, which he gives voice to as we all raptly listen in. It is a tour de force of monologue writing and acting across three stages of man: the senior (Jim Norton/Peter Maloney), the middle aged (Brian D’Arcy/Billy Carter), and the twentysomething (John Gallagher/James Russell). They speak of life from the perspective of their age, and of love, which knows no such boundary.
With the barest of sets and the absence of any action, it is the sheer power of language and tale-spinning that pulls you in. Each is able to give you a sense of the entire life of that man, just from these revealed thoughts. That's what makes this such a special, powerful play. That primacy of the spoken word reminded me of HBO’s In Treatment, where another Irishman, Gabriel Byrne, absolutely commanded our attention, all the while sitting in a chair.
A line in Terry Teachout’s rave review of the play back in 2008 surprised me. He described it as a “series of interwoven monologues by three unhappy Irishmen.”
Unhappy Irishman. It never occurred to me that these men were unhappy. From my own experience, there is something about the Celtic soul that doesn’t think in happy/unhappy terms. Life is. There are highs and lows, joys and disappointments. So be it.
I saw Martin Sheen back in 2008 on The Graham Norton Show. Graham asked him what the secret was to having such a long and happy marriage. Sheen answered, it’s not really about happiness. What makes a loving marriage work is if your partner helps you to experience joy. It’s a subtle, important distinction which McPherson understands.
Each of our waiting-room Irishmen speaks of specific moments of joy within his tale. There is also deep disappointment all around, and they all wish many things were different.
But they are Irish. Their wit and wisdom and whisky will sustain them, until the final Ferryman comes to take them across that other river.
(photo, Doug Hamilton)