This may be an experience akin to plowing through “Finnegan’s Wake.” (Or so I’m told.) Admittedly, the product in question – Sebastian Barry’s highly poetic play “The Steward of Christendom” - ends sooner than the Joyce opus, and is quite a few ticks more comprehensible. Usually.
There are stretches, particularly early on in Barry’s play, where the central character, an aging and somewhat demented former policeman named Thomas Dunne, works through a lyric free-association of memories. Words, phrases and memories lead to other places. Clover, a field, his mother’s breast.
“Christendom” is not a one-man play; people from Dunne’s past and present enter to interrupt the memories, but our Mr. Dunne (a character based on the playwright’s great-grandfather) spends the entire 160 minutes on stage. His memory, although periodically fractured, is in working order, and the man does love to talk.
No wonder then that Steven Robman’s production rests firmly on the stooped shoulders of star Brian Dennehy for whom “The Steward of Christendom” is but one in a continuing series of wowing stage star turns in a career that appears to be deepening with every new role. Dennehy, now 75, works most regularly in Chicago and New York, although L.A. audiences were fortunate to experience his Tony Award-winning Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” back at the dawn of this century. To this critic’s recollection, Dennehy has not trod the L.A. boards since.
This actor’s work – and, yes, this performance - should be seen, and by greater numbers than occupied a perhaps half-full Mark Taper Forum on a pre-Christmas Monday night performance. But be warned. “The Steward of Christendom” often feels more like a rambling dramatic poem than a play. It is lengthy, it is Irish to its marrow, and it is slow.
The year is 1932 and the setting is a mental institution in County Wicklow, Ireland. Wearing a pair of ratty longjohns, Dunne moves gingerly around the locked garret that is now his home. Where the Dunnes once occupied and administered Dublin Castle, Thomas’s present accommodations are considerably meaner, although set designer’s Kevin Depinet’s soaring bay window, staircase and meager furnishings do give the old man plenty of space to pace and bump up against his memories. Facility attendants Smith (played by James Lancaster) and Mrs. O’Dea (Mary-Pat Green) enter from time to time to take care of Dunne’s needs, which they dispatch with varying degrees of reluctance. Smith is abusive, blaming Dunne for his past political transgressions while Mrs. O’Dea is kindly, looking to provide the old man with a suit of clothes complete with the gold thread he so covets.
Dunne, we come to learn, was a Roman Catholic police chief who rose as high as he could and ended up caught in between regime changes amidst the Irish Civil War. By staying loyal to the British crown, Dunne kept to his principles, but sacrificed much on the home front. Now very much in his dotage, Dunne’s only comforts are his memories and even these come with thorns.
Dunne raised three daughters, the last of whom was born as his wife was dying. Annie (Abby Wilde) remains the most devoted. Dolly, the youngest, (Carmella Corbett) fled to the United States in the midst of the uprising. Dunne’s son Willie (Daniel Weinstein) died in the war, and returns in his father’s memories as an adolescent boy, wearing soldier’s fatigues. Certainly the senior Dunne is starved for affection, forgiveness and simple human kindness. His grandsons are now afraid of him and never visit. All of his parables - whether spoken to an audience who is real or imagined - boil down to the power and importance of love.
Playing perhaps the play’s angriest and most political character, Wilde locates Annie’s severity and her compassion. Lancaster’s Smith is casually brutish in his role as de facto prison guard, and conveniently redeemed during a late session with Dunne when he reads an important letter. Green’s kindly Mrs. O’Dea says the right things but in this institution, it’s fairly clear that the men are dictating behaviors.
In Dennehy’s hands, Dunne becomes an easy character to be concerned about. The actor is big, but not hearty, and those longjohns (of which he is briefly stripped) don’t do a lot for Dunne’s dignity. Not that he’s seeking any. With perhaps one exception, this is a man who is too broken even to rage. He has his stories, his poetic Irish soul and his belief that love trumps all, even in the face of a world that screams that the opposite is true.
So score one for gentleness and leave it to a white bearded bear like Brian Dennehy’s Thomas Dunne to sell it. But strap yourself in for a long sale.
“The Steward of Christendom” plays 8 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sat; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun; through Jan. 5 at 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. $20-$70. (213) 628-2772, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.