Review of Corktown ’57 on stage at the Odyssey Theatre.
Science-fiction author Frank Herbert rightly observed that “Blood is thicker than water, but politics are thicker than blood.” Set in a Republican Irish neighbourhood in Philadelphia, Corktown ’57 deftly dramatizes the way in which familial bonds can be worn, frayed, and ultimately disintegrated by ideological conflict – in this case, the historical antagonism between the Irish and the British.
Loosely inspired by playwright John Fazakerley’s family memories, and embellished for dramatic effect, Corktown ’57 invites us into the complexities of Irish sovereignty via an affable everyman’s family troubles. The play’s secret sauce for compelling theatre, manifested by a superb craft on the part of the Odyssey Theatre’s guest production : Sharp, focused writing, directing and acting that trusts in the characters to drive the narrative rather than plot gimmicks. Corktown ’57 could have gone the route of a political thriller, replete with multiple plot twists of the knife. Instead, it delivers a thoughtful study of how political passions infiltrate and inflame even the most mundane dimensions of family life. And so we have Frank Keating struggling with the loss of his home and store on account of eminent domain, estranged from his wife over the tragic accidental death of their daughter, and his father’s cancer to contend with. A detonation occurs when a brother he never met arrives at his invitation. The lit fuse: Brother John, an Irishman who serves as a general in the British army. His presence exposes the fault lines in a family that occupies the nexus between Irish Republicans’ militancy against the British via groups like the IRA, and the efforts of moderates to broker a peace.
Without resorting to elaborate history lessons, Fazakerley nimbly sketches out the big picture of the Irish-British struggle throughout his characters’ frequent arguments and confrontations. But as fascinating as it is to glean insight from the nationalistic fervor that underlies Irish Republicanism, it’s the casualties of political obsession that concern Fazakerley and, by extension, us. Son is set against father, brother against sister. A story that resonates with world affairs today plays out to a sad but not hopeless conclusion.
Growing up in Québec, I was often surrounded by separatist-minded folk whose perspective was at odds with my own more conciliatory, can’t-we-all-get-along attitude. Though the terrors of the infamous Québec Liberation Front were before my time, the nationalist sentiment still lingered strongly, influencing even my fellow teenagers. What does that say about nationalism, when it creates fissures even among the young?
As a hopefully wiser adult, my perspective strikes a balance between understanding (and even supporting) the revolutionary desire for sovereignty for peoples around the world, and regretting the hostile divisiveness that invariably arises between antagonists over questions of independence. Corktown ’57 is by no means a piece of soapbox theatre, but for those with the inclination to draw inferences regarding the play’s significance there is this: Herbert – and, by proxy, Fazakerley – was right in his observation. But surely our moral responsibility is to prove him wrong.
“Corktown ’57” by John Fazakerley. Directed by Wilson Milam. Starring Jonah Beres, Natalie Britton, Josh Clark, Andrew Connolly, Belen Greene, Kevin P. Kearns, John Ruby, Nick Tate, Rebecca Tilney. On stage at the Odyssey Theatre March 28 – May 3, 2015. Call (323) 960-5770 or visit www.plays411.com/corktown for tickets and information.
Frédérik is the Page’s Assistant Editor and Resident Art Critic. He can be reached at email@example.com