Troubles in Mind

Catholicism and politics are at the forefront of Nate Rufus Edelman’s bittersweet drama The Belle of Belfast, being given a compelling production at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Edelman follows a small Catholic community in the Northern Ireland capital in 1985 as they negotiate the dominant strands of the troubles and how deeply they are ingrained in people’s lives.

The focus is on Father Ben Reilly (Hamish Allan-Headley), a 35-year-old priest, and his relationship to parishioners, two in particular. One is Emma Malloy, an elderly lady with a shaky grasp of sin. Embodied with warmth and earnestness by Patricia Conolly, the befuddled Emma stretches herself trying to find mistakes in her behavior, as Reilly repeatedly assures her that she hasn’t sinned. Her confession of taking a sip of whisky—Bushmills, she says—falls flat after Reilly assures her that a sip of whiskey doesn’t require penance. Then, conscious of the smallest political error, Emma makes a further clarification: it was poteen, not Bushmills. “I would never touch a Protestant whiskey,” she says.

Under director Claudia Weill, the wry humor of these scenes is a welcome contrast to the main event, which involves Emma’s great-niece, Anne (Katy Lydic), a red-haired knockout who has little use for Catholicism, let alone the church. Anne attends confession at her aunt’s instigation with great reluctance and scorn. She swears and makes clear to Reilly that she does drugs, has sex, and generally ignores church teachings. Her drifting moral compass is a result of the killing of both her parents in a bombing. That alone isn’t the most hurtful part—it’s that people regarded her parents as martyrs, although they were innocent bystanders. Anne loathes the politics that elevate her parents to political heroes and override her personal loss.

Reilly feels kinship toward Anne because he was also orphaned. After his parents were killed in a car accident, Reilly was determined to become a priest to make them proud. Unfortunately, Anne knows no boundaries. “Do you have anything to confess?” asks Reilly, and she responds, “No, I just came here to give you a blow job.” It’s the kind of thing an unruly teenager would say, but Lydic looks about 10 years older than the 18-year-old character, and it hampers some of the credibility of the play. However, Allan-Headley as Reilly is a compelling presence: sympathetic, vulnerable and masculine. The actor conveys the cleric's internal struggles, and he has the gift of charisma that makes it clear why Anne falls for Reilly. (All the actors, incidentally, have persuasive Irish accents.) 

John McDermott’s set nicely echoes the compartmentalization of emotions that are hemming in the principals. When the characters are not in the confines of the confessional, there are two primary playing areas. One is the small parish apartment that Reilly shares with Father Dermott Behan (Billy Meleady), a firebrand Sinn Fein partisan who has made peace with abnegation—no sex, but plenty of alcohol—and  expects to find a heaven where he can surf. The other half of the stage shows a concrete dock and a high wall topped by barbed wire, where Anne frequently meets her friend Ciara (Arielle Hoffman) to talk about boys and sex. Both spaces are prisons for their respective characters.

Ultimately, Anne (her nickname provides the title of the play) leads Reilly astray, but not for long, and the aftermath isn’t what one might expect. The doctrinaire Behan, who hears Reilly’s confession, holds fast to the outlook that plagued Belfast in 1985: “I’ve dedicated ma entire existence to a united Catholic Ireland and you have the gall to betray your church and your country…” But Reilly understands that political and religious doctrine can stand in the way of success as a priest. In a lovely coda, Anne and Reilly meet a few years later, and each has moved on from the experience, both physically and mentally. Anne has found happiness. Reilly has found solace. It’s a satisfying close to this poignant tragedy.

Nate Rufus Edelman’s The Belle of Belfast plays through June 7 at the Irish Repertory Theatre’s temporary home at DR2 Theaters (103 East 15th St.) off Union Square. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Tuesday through Thursday and 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, visit www.irishrep.org or call the box office at 212-727-2737.

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