What good does it do, really, to revisit violence past? For all the value we instinctively place on peace processes, and handshakes between enemies of yore, does dredging up long-ago horrors really help us in the present? Such questions — easy to ask, impossible to resolve — drive Owen McCafferty’s Quietly, a thoughtful drama about legacies of hatred in Northern Ireland. The Abbey Theatre production, directed by Jimmy Fay and now playing at the Irish Rep, is a spare exploration of old anger and buried grief: the ways time reshapes these emotions, and the ways that they stay stubbornly the same.
McCafferty sets his three-hander — a truth and reconciliation process in miniature — in a Belfast pub, under the watchful eyes of Robert (Robert Zawadzki), a bartender and recent immigrant from Poland. A regular, Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane), nurses a beer, telling Robert that things are about to heat up: Jimmy’s invited a drinking companion, and there might be shouting. This turns out to be Ian (Declan Conlon), and the encounter represents Jimmy’s attempt to come to terms with what happened in this very pub back in 1974, when both men were sixteen. Ian, under the sway of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force, tossed a bomb into the bar, killing Jimmy’s father, a Catholic, and several of his friends as they watched a football match on TV.
Jimmy and Ian canvass this history carefully. Jimmy remembers hearing the terrifying sound of the explosion from up the street. His father’s death destroyed his mother’s life — and his too, as he abandoned his studies and landed in jail. Ian, though a hero to local UVF fighters, has likewise found his life circumscribed by the explosion’s aftermath. The men take in each other’s tales with what patience they can muster, then attempt to ascertain whether it’s meant anything to have come together to tell them in the first place.
McCafferty’s refusal to answer this question is the best element of the play. With admirable restraint, the playwright places his focus on the history and avoids piling on gratuitous traumas for Ian and Jimmy in the present. Current-day troubles are, instead, reserved for Robert; the largely silent spectator to Ian’s and Jimmy’s grief, he’s also an immigrant who represents a new target for Belfast’s frustration and rage. The unfussy plot lends the play a welcome simplicity, and the performers (O’Kane particularly) offer sympathetic portraits of men leading permanently ruptured lives.
At times, Quietly‘s straightforwardness veers toward the schematic. We learn little else about Ian or Jimmy, and the methodical processing of the past, one monologue at a time, can feel predictable. But it’s hard not to sense the play’s relevance, not just in its Irish context, but also in present-day America — so fraught, as of late, with acts of vengeful violence. McCafferty reminds us that remembering the past doesn’t have to mean knowing the answers. “That’s not the story,” Jimmy insists as he tries to imagine his father in the pub, moments before the explosion. “We don’t know the story — no one left to tell us.”
By Owen McCafferty
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Through September 11