FATHERS AND SONS Tony Reilly as Da and Christpher Holt as Charlie.
When Charlie’s father dies, he doesn’t go quietly. Actually, he doesn’t go at all. He follows Charlie (Christopher Holt) around the old family home outside of Dublin, whistling, cracking crass jokes and generally making it difficult for the son to let the old man lie still in the ground. The complexity of familial love, regret, and shame, as seen between Charlie, who long ago moved to London, and his simple, sometimes confounding, working-class gardener father (Tony Reilly), are the crucible of Hugh Leonard’s Da. Tony Reilly and Michael Howard direct a funny and richly moving production at the Portland Stage studio theater, closing out the 10th anniversary season of the American Irish Repertory Ensemble.
While Charlie is beleaguered by his deceased Da, and his Ma (Susan Reilly), who died two years before, he’s also visited by living men who come to pay respects — his old friend Oliver (Eric Worthley) and his pompous former employer Mr. Drumm (Paul Haley). Thus Charlie slips through time in and around his childhood home, a weathered kitchen of cream, brown, and pale blue. He relives how his big, loud, cheerful Da infuriated and shamed him with quirks both benign — stumbling upon Charlie’s would-be loss of virginity — and more troubling — expressing his ignorant admiration in front of disdainful Mr. Drumm (Haley’s dour, precise prig is an excellent foil for Reilly’s loose-cannon fool). Finally, Charlie battles and reminisces with not only his Da but also his younger self (the excellent Thomas Ian Campbell). As he does, Da leaps nimbly in both time and tenor, from the comedic foibles to painful regrets.
AIRE’s production handles this braiding with beautifully dynamic and varied physical moments, taut pacing, and fine principle actors performing at the top of their game. Reilly’s Da, in tweed, corduroy, and a red neckerchief, is in constant boyish motion, tapping, whistling, rolling wide eyes about the room, and erupting into frequent generous guffaws. Holt’s middle-aged Charlie and Campbell’s teenage one are superbly paired; they have the same lean, angular frame and even the same quick, uncomfortable grimace. As each first realizes who the other is, they glare and circle each other, but soon afterward, the older stands behind the seated younger as they laughingly recall a dating gaffe involving poorly pressed trousers. The older Charlie often comments painfully on the younger, observing wryly that “the shame of being ashamed of them was always the worst part, wasn’t it?”
As the father Charlie grapples to both banish and love, Reilly forthrightly reveals Da’s irascible simple-mindedness and insecure rages as well as his big-hearted, utter loyalty to his son. It’s affecting to see his Da in a rare moment of authority, explaining roses to the landowner (Patricia Mew) who is about to dick him of a good pension after his 54 years of service. Once she does, the competing pride and shame in his face are heartbreaking. And as the man trying to lay his father down, Holt is absolutely virtuoso. He expresses a stealthy, wrenching range of emotion, from his face clenching and reddening as Ma upbraids Da to his remarkable work as a younger, child Charlie: as Da helps Charlie up a stepladder to point out sights, Holt’s face and posture conjure that of a small boy, his mouth and brow now scrunched up in consternation or fear, now wide with pride and trust as he says a phrase we never hear repeated: “I love you, Da.” Holt is especially devastating as he silently weeps behind his aged, dementia-ravaged father, listening as Da speaks to him as if to his own father-in-law.