Terror, Through Irish Eyes

Belfast Blues and The Good Thief in Repertory at the Rubicon

by Sara Barbour

It isn’t every day that two tales from Ireland arrive simultaneously on California’s doorstep. What with our inevitable local preoccupations, and the situation of the world at large growing steadily more precarious, Ireland is not necessarily uppermost in our minds. Nevertheless, two wonderful recent Irish plays are opening this week at the Rubicon Theatre, and both Belfast Blues and The Good Thief strike timely notes with the issues they raise. Be it through a young girl’s journey to womanhood in a city riddled with religious strife (Blues), or by means of a hired thug’s sudden and desperate change of heart (Thief), both of these critically acclaimed productions successfully address the more subtle terrors of violence in contemporary society.

Belfast Blues, the award-winning solo play written and performed by Belfast native Geraldine Hughes, opens tonight (August 3). It centers on the author’s impoverished and war-shadowed childhood in the 1970s and ’80s, and is populated by her impressions of a comfortably odd mixture of characters including her family, friends, and eccentric neighbors. Hughes depicts her journey through adolescence mostly from a child’s point of view, in what she said was, for her, a “normal situation,” where children took their perilous surroundings in stride with “maturity and stamina.” In her words, the girls and boys of Belfast were just “kids trying to be kids.”

When she premiered Belfast Blues in Los Angeles in 2003, Hughes said she did not expect it to play for more than the several weeks for which it was initially scheduled. The play won Ovation, Garland, and L.A. Drama Critics Circle awards, and has gone on to be produced off-Broadway in New York and all over Europe. Hughes has been celebrated for her perceptive ability as a performer to easily distinguish each of her characters with well-crafted, distinctive mannerisms. For the Rubicon production, Belfast Blues will be directed by Emmy-winning actress Carol Kane. Together, Kane and Hughes re-create the bleak yet humorous ambience of Hughes’s childhood in a war zone. The small tragedies of Hughes’s underprivileged upbringing provide a bittersweet counterpoint to the story’s background, which is the ongoing battle between Ireland’s competing faiths.

The other Irish play that the Rubicon will be producing in repertory with Belfast Blues is writer Conor McPherson’s The Good Thief, which opens August 10. McPherson’s play is similar to Hughes’s in that a single actor carries the play, but different in that it is a true monologue said by one character. The story unwinds through the eyes and voice of a nameless Dubliner, who reveals to the audience the horrors and hopelessness of his dark and violent world. This seasoned delinquent’s latest job of terror has ended in accidental murder, leaving him responsible for the victim’s now-widowed wife and fatherless child. Actor Conor Lovett will bring a steely intensity to this disturbing work, which will be directed by renowned Irish director Judy Hegarty Lovett.

At first glance, it may appear that the characters who bare their souls in these two plays possess such unique experiences that they could have little in common with audiences here. Although most of us can already identify with such broad themes as family, friendship, and sudden but necessary changes of heart, these plays attain a greater degree of relevance when considered in relation to contemporary world politics. They both go beyond being simply their respective author’s views of their Irish homes and neighborhoods to reflect on what has become a common experience in far too many places worldwide — growing up in a country where terrorism and warfare are part of everyday life. Given their common legacy of religious strife, who is to say that the rolling green hills of “troubled” Ireland don’t at times find an echo in the silhouettes of the dunes in the Middle East?

The violence in which these Irish authors were raised may have subsided, but conflicts similar in their religious basis continue to flourish in other countries around the globe, making Hughes and McPherson’s works windows to a different world — one which it has become increasingly necessary for us to understand. As Geraldine Hughes, who lived with war and terrorism for most of her childhood, pointed out, “A child is a child no matter what. … Kids have no choice in war, and yet they suffer as much as anyone else.”

4-1-1 Belfast Blues plays Aug. 3 -Sept. 12; The Good Thief shows Aug. 10 - Sept. 17. Visit or call 667-2900.

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