Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Sanctuary Lamp"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by Tom Murphy
directed by Carmel O’Reilly

Harry … Nigel Gore
Monsignor … Jackson Royal
Maudie … Stacy Fischer
Francisco … Aidan Parkinson

The Súgán Theatre is on a gentle roll, this season: several months ago, its production of Mr. Synge’s THE WELL OF THE SAINTS outshone the Abbey Theatre’s deconstruction of his PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD and now it offers, in quiet joy, Tom Murphy’s THE SANCTUARY LAMP, his once-controversial attack on the Catholic Church. Mr. Murphy has been called Ireland’s greatest living playwright yet I knew nothing about him until now having missed the Súgán’s previous productions of his work but I soon fell under his spell with its nods to Mr. Beckett’s vaudeville and Mr. Pinter’s stop-start dialogue but which actually flows from the heart of Lord Dunsany’s odd, poetic mood-pieces of a near-century, before.

The scene is a church in an unspecified city. Harry, an ex-circus strongman, comes to confess his murderous impulses towards his wife Olga and best friend Francisco who have openly cuckolded him; instead of absolving Harry, the Monsignor, who feels his own calling has become a mere job, hires him to look after the place and to replace the candle in the sanctuary lamp every twenty-four hours (the candle symbolizes Christ’s constant presence). Harry discovers a sixteen-year-old named Maudie in the shadows, seeking refuge from a brutal home life and her own checkered past and they strike a bond to secretly co-exist on the premises but are soon joined by Francisco who has sought out Harry to taunt him and, finally, to beg forgiveness. The passing of Time and Carmel O’Reilly’s gossamer direction have removed the play’s shocking frankness while leaving its wild gusts of humor intact; thus when everything save the lamp is desecrated --- priestly robes being used as an overcoat; fish-and-chips consumed with sacramental wine on the altar; the confessional being lowered for sleeping quarters, etc. --- the effect is not a Sunday school lad gleefully smashing stained-glass windows but, rather, a matter-of-fact reevaluation similar to the late Joe Orton’s comment about a coffin being a box into which you put things, no more, no less. Lest you sense a bloodbath, fear not: Mr. Murphy’s purpose is to shine lights into dark corners, hopefully for the better, and the evening ends in an unfinished question that made me implode with a resounding “Yes!” --- I sensed Mr. Murphy paused for a moment then wrote or typed “The End”; there was and is nothing more to be said.

As the Monsignor, Jackson Royal continues to walk through his roles as an English professor holding book but he is always handsome and dignified about it; the contrasting trio playing Mr. Murphy’s lost souls are, as the lyric goes, something sort of grandish. Aidan Parkinson, also new to me, brings equal parts acid and fire to Francisco, keeping this two-timer high, dry and blarney-free (his repeated cries of “Har!” drag his friend’s name across gravel), and Ms. O’Reilly has freed Stacy Fischer from her loony-bird roles to coax from her a wide-eyed Maudie that is all the more touching for not moistly appealing to the audience for a hug; this is one waif determined to get on with her life, somehow. As I recently scribbled, the more theatre you attend the better you can access and Nigel Gore turns in one of the season’s Big Ones as the rudderless Harry. I first (and last) saw Mr. Gore as a cold, graven Jefferson in MONTICEL’, two Decembers ago; here, his Harry is a combination of he-man strength and tortured doubts, a man both larger than life and perfectly ordinary, a decent-enough bloke but with a Swiss knife ever in his pocket. Mr. Gore has clearly put his trust in both his playwright and director so when he suddenly mimes a few interpretative dance steps or when he tries to cheer up Maudie with a song, such actions wonderfully balance Harry’s swagger and prowess --- Mr. Gore even has the right physique: muscular enough to suggest Harry’s former greatness but now softening for lack of employment. Seeing Mr. Gore and Ms. Fischer successful in their new skins makes me declare even louder that more of Boston’s actors should be given similar opportunities --- after all, acting is an art that evolves through testing and challenges and the box office be damned (sometimes); otherwise, you’re just a dog jumping through the same old, safe hoop.

"The Sanctuary Lamp" (4-26 February)
Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts
527 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 933-8600

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide