An astonishing and eloquent production of “Banished Children of Eve” which takes place in New York City’s Bowery section circa 1863 has just opened The Irish Rep’s 23rd season. It is a world premiere by playwright Kelly Younger adapted from the novel by Peter Quinn that is directed with care and insight by Ciaran O’Reilly.
On a clever Charlie Corcoran circular set that is rotated by members of the cast and crew to allow for the various locations to smoothly fall into view the Irish and the Blacks try to join forces against the Yanks during the riots that broke out because of the introduction of a mandatory draft – unless you had three hundred dollars to pay to be excused or could escape to Canada.
Both The Paddys and the Niggers feel the pressure especially backstage at a local Minstrel Show where the highlight is Uncle Tom’s Cabin enacted by a drunken Jack Mulcahey (an excellent David Lansbury) and his true love Eliza (a wondrous Amber Gray) a Cuban actress – as black actresses were not allowed on stage. There is a young black man – Squirt (a terrific Christopher Borger) who performs with Jack on the streets to make extra cash. His talent belies the fact that he is only fourteen.
In an incredible opening we meet the characters. One almost feels that it is an opening number of a musical as the sounds and rhythms and characters are introduced including the down trodden Stephen Foster (Malcolm Gets) trying to come up with another hit with some tunes for Uncle Tom.
There is the fishmonger – the voice of truth – Euphemia Blanchard (a feisty Patrice Johnson) and the corrupt Waldo Capshaw (Graeme Malcolm) who wants to rob the wealthy employer of Margaret O’Driscoll (Amanda Quaid) with the help of Jimmy Dunne (Jonny Orsini) who is to distract the girl so they can get the keys to the house so he can get the money to avoid the draft.
The intertwining stories merge at a hotel where they are seeking refuge from the riots and where we hear a touching rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer” by Foster. It is here that saving Squirt becomes the focal point of the play and has it going off into somewhat melodramatic and predictable territory. But the overall effect is very moving as we realize we haven’t made much progress over the years with the same problem of discrimination still rearing its ugly head.
We are not in the same boat anymore, but as Euphemia states “we are drowning in the same water.”
Through December 5th www.irishrep.org