Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

As we celebrate the 175th Anniversary of the Archdiocese, we look back… on July 17, 1891 when Bishop Lawrence S. McMahon dedicated St. Bernard Church, Enfield.
Catholic Transcript Reader Survey
Catholic Transcript Reader Survey

Rufus Collins and Orlagh Cassidy in 'Aristocrats' at the Irish Repertory Theater. Click here to enlarge. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

NEW YORK – The Irish Repertory Company is presenting an excellent revival of Brian Friel's bittersweet 1979 play, "Aristocrats," which has been staged with wit and wisdom by the company's artistic director, Charlotte Moore.

Mr. Friel probably is best known to American audiences for his "Philadelphia, Here I Come" and "Dancing at Lughnasa." With "Aristocrats," he is in his most Chekhovian mood. In this instance, he seems to be inspired by the master's "The Cherry Orchard" and, to a lesser extent, "The Three Sisters." Yet, at its core, "Aristocrats" is very much its own play – very Friel and very Irish.

The setting is Ballybeg, County Donegal, Ireland, at the Georgian mansion of Judge O'Donnell, once a very highly regarded district barrister. The time is the mid-1970s, when Ireland was on the brink of an economic downturn. It is summer and the O'Donnell estate is bathed in warm, dappled sunshine, and the lawn, on which most of the play's action takes place, is a vibrant green. The house, however, is in a state of disrepair, and the surviving O'Donnell family represents the aristocratic remnants of another time.

A family reunion is in progress, with four of the five O'Donnell children present. The occasion is the impending wedding of the youngest daughter, Claire. The Judge has suffered a stroke recently and, although confined to his upstairs bedroom, he continues to be an intimidating presence, roaring orders to the family via a recently installed baby monitor in the library.

For the most part, the family's younger generation is in a continuous state of mild upheaval. Alice (Orlagh Cassidy) is a beauty, lives in London, drinks a little, and is married to Eamon (Ciaran O'Reilly), who was once involved in political causes, but who now seems a bit lost and bitter.

Judith (Lynn Hawley) has sacrificed love and a life of her own to stay at home and take care of the falling-apart manse and her bullying father.

Another sister, who long ago escaped the family to become a nun, is now a missionary in Africa. She becomes part of the festivities by sending an audiocassette greeting.

The bride-to-be Claire only seems happy when she is playing Chopin. We discover that she is going to marry a local grocer who is 20 years her senior.

The family's only boy, Casimir (John Keating), exhibits the demeanor of someone who has never grown up; his father's authoritative voice still frightens him into a state of emotional and physical collapse. Casimir's stories of the famous Irish writers who used to visit the estate, as well as of the wife and three sons back in Germany whom he talks about – whom no one in the family has ever met – seem to be just blarney to brother-in-law Eamon. Casimir seems most content playing an imaginary game of lawn croquet.

The happiest member of the family seems to be the eccentric Uncle George, who frequently appears from nowhere wearing a summer white suit and saying nothing, supposedly not having spoken for years.

"Aristocrats" is a play with a rich tapestry. It is, for the most part, a quiet play, except for Casimir's outbursts and Claire's piano playing. The characters are well-bred and try to be helpful. Though a death occurs, the play is often gently amusing.

As happens in Chekhov's plays, there is no resolution at the final curtain in Mr. Friel's play. You feel that the O'Donnell clan has come to the end of one phase of their lives and knows what the future prospects are going to be.

The only misstep Mr. Friel makes is the heavy-handed inclusion of the character Tom Hoffning (Rufus Collins), a visiting American scholar recording the estate’s history and decay. His probing questions seem superfluous. He seems to be an unneeded device which could have been introduced with more subtlety.

Now that Ireland’s latest boom has subsided and we read in the papers that the Irish are moving to Poland to get work, a new generation of O'Donnells might again be faced with a fading culture, economic uncertainty and the decay of all the restoration that occurred in the ’90s and early 21st century. Though written in the 1970s, Mr. Friel’s thoughtful and lyrical work has a sad and eerie resonance.

The run of "Aristocrats" has been extended through March 29. The Irish Repertory Theatre is located at 132 W. 22nd St. between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Tickets and performance schedules are available by calling (212) 727-2737.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers arts and entertainment.

alertAt the Spring Assembly of the U.S. bishops, Cardinal Joseph Tobin suggested that a delegation ofbishops go to the border to see for themselves what was happening to newly arrived immigrants, families and children. On July 1 and 2, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. bishops conference, and five other bishops conducted a pastoral visit to the diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Stops included Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle with the community, a visit to anHHS/OBR Shelter and Mass for the families there, a visit to the Customs and Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, TX, and a press conference at the end of their visit. Catholic News Service accompanied the bishops on their border trip. 

  1. Backgrounder and analysis of the bishops’ trip to the border: Cardinal DiNardo told CNS, “You cannot look at immigration as an abstraction when you meet” the people behind the issue.
  2. At final press conference, Cardinal Daniel Dinardo said the church was willing to be part of any conversation to find humane solutions because even a policy of detaining families together in facilities caused “concern.”
  3. Bishops serve soup to immigrant families at a center run by Catholic Charities and listen to their stories. Scranton Bishop Joseph Bambera said he found hope in hearing the people in the room talk about what’s ahead. They didn’t speak of making money but of finding safety for their children, he said, driven by “the most basic instinct to protect your family.”
  4. At an opening Mass he Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle-National Shrine near McAllen, Texas, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville told Massgoers, “The bishops are visiting here so they can stop and look and talk to people and understand, especially the suffering of many who are amongst us,”

A delegation of U.S. bishops goes on a fact-finding mission at the U.S.-Mexican border to learn more about Central American immigration detention.

Following their visit to an immigrant detention center, U.S. bishops said they are even more determined to call on Congress for comprehensive immigration reform.