‘Come On Home’ from Michigan Irish Rep is haunting and hopeful
By Brian Cox
DETROIT, MI–At my paternal grandfather’s funeral, old familial wounds were ripped open, drunken accusations were hurled, physical threats were made, and the police were called. No one ended up handcuffed, but it was a memorable event in its own twisted way. I’ve recognized since that funerals can often become a crucible of family resentments, jealousies, grudges, judgments, and revelations.
Which is what makes them such a fertile setting for drama.
Irish playwright Philip McMahon’s play Come On Home takes place during a the preparation of a home-wake where the reunion of three brothers after their mother’s death proves to be bitter, corrosively nostalgic and sopped with alcohol. With the wake as his inciting incident, McMahon plumbs the volatile and violating dynamics between the brothers, their deceased parents, and the local clergy. The complex relationships and provocative themes of family estrangement, religious hypocrisy and sexual abuse and repression can hit uncomfortably close to home.
For reserved tickets, go to http://michiganirishrep.org/. Reserved tickets are $20. Walkups are by donation.
The play, which opened at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 2018, is receiving its U.S. premier by the Michigan Irish Repertory Theatre at the Marlene Boll Theatre in Detroit. The production resumes this weekend on September 15, 16, 17.
After a long absence, Michael (John DeMerell) has returned home for the first time in 20 years to attend his mother’s wake. Lying in an open coffin in the living room, she is a constant presence throughout the play, a physical reminder of a torturous past for the brothers that ironically may be buried but is certainly not dead. Michael is unsure of his welcome and with good cause. He left home after his father kicked him out of the house, seemingly for quitting seminary school and abandoning any intention of becoming a priest. Finally free to no longer deny his sexuality, Michael fled to London to live a more liberating life as a gay man.
Michael’s younger brother, Ray (Jordan Hayes-Devloo), embraces his return, but their older brother, Brian (David Kiley), still harbors anger and resentment that is rooted in a dark, disturbing history and that has been on low boil for years. And when it finally boils over and is unleashed, the devastating, lifelong wounds of abuse are revealed.
Despite the play’s inviting title, many of its characters are desperate to leave the suffocating and condemning confines of their repressive, provincial town outside of Dublin, Ireland.
Even though he left years ago, Michael still feels trapped emotionally in his suffocating and claustrophobic hometown, “tortured by ghosts.”
Ray and his wife Aiofe (Kara O’Connor) live in the family home. Ray took over his father’s barbershop business, but because of gambling debt was unable to keep it going and now cuts hair out of the house. Aiofe, whose hopeful, upbeat spark is in stark contrast to the simmering tension underlying the drama, is pregnant and determined to leave town to begin anew and build a better life for her child.
“I’ll die if I don’t get out of this place,” she says.
But Brian’s wife, Martina (Sarah Burcon), who is cynical, caustically funny, and long-suffering, understands all too well that there is no escape for any of them.
“There are no fresh starts,” she tells Aiofe. “Might as well accept the kick in the hole now.”
Over the course of the whiskey- and beer-fueled night, the brothers dredge up dreadful memories and struggle to find some form of reconciliation with each other and their parents. Terrible fights erupt and then cool, only to erupt again. It is a familiar pattern to anyone raised in a turbulent home. The fraternal bond can be both fragile and resilient.
“It’s blood and history that binds us,” says Michael at one point.
When Father Seamus (Peter Knox) arrives to preside over the prayers, he is greeted with hostility and suspicion. The brothers’ relationship with the local priests is fraught. A second priest, Father Cleary (Ben Feliciano), was one of Michael’s seminary teachers and the two have a history that is mired in repression, denial and hypocrisy.
As Kiley (who in addition to playing Brian is the show’s producer), mentions in his program note, McMahon “is rough on priests.”
“The subject is hard for many,” he writes. “But one of the ways we all heal from a tragedy like the scandal that fractured the Roman Catholic Church and so many families is to talk about it and create art around it. Healing never comes from hushing up that which is difficult to talk about.”
Kiley and DeMerrell give riveting performances that reveal in their characters a deep, enduring pain that seems primal. Both brothers have monologues that are gut-wrenching in their honesty and rawness. Kiley evinces the ever-simmering rage that festers in Brian over the betrayal he suffered from those responsible for protecting him and that he has tried for decades to salve and suppress with alcohol. DeMerrell is actually a wonder, able to navigate Michael through a maelstrom of emotions that never seems jumpy or unjustified.
As Martina, Burcon is pitch perfect as a woman who is sardonic and armored and yet believably the caring, gentle hand that has guided her husband through countless tormented nights. One scene where Martina and Michael are smoking out on the porch is a virtual study in quiet, evocative acting.
O’Connor is effusive as Aoife, whose pregnancy provides the hope that the family is trying to latch on to amidst the tragedy of “Mammy’s” death and the tragic family history that surfaces, and Hayes-Devloo finds the pathos in Ray who care deeply for his brothers though he has had trouble getting off the treadmill of sameness and static energy of the hometown.
The understated direction by Jade Sibert allows the play’s masterful, quick-paced dialogue to create movement, although at times the staging appears oddly finagled. The choice to employ Irish accents could have been risky, but in large part the cast pulls it off nicely, with a few exceptions that, while distracting at times, were not disruptive. McMahon’s writing includes a lot of Irish idioms and expressions, and delivering them in Midwestern voices would have seemed odd.
The simple set design of the family living room affords the coffin its central focus, never allowing the audience to forget the presence of Mother.
The play loses its focus a bit in the end as McMahon turns attention away from the interrelationships of the family to examine the residue of a love affair that in all probability was always doomed by the social and sexual rigidity of the small town and the church. Nonetheless, Come On Home is a special, powerful , and ultimately hopeful, play that takes a candid look at faith and family and the abiding scars both can leave on young hearts.
Brian Cox is an Ypsilanti, MI-based writer, playwright and director.
Editor’s Note: David Kiley, producer of “Come On Home,” is publisher of EncoreMchigan. Brian Cox was engaged as an outside, independent voice to review the play.