A lonely Irish sacristan looks back on the brief shining moments in his life when he loved another man’s wife in Billy Roche’s exquisite gem of a memory play, Belfry, at last getting its West Coast Premiere at a revitalized Malibu Playhouse under the assured, nuanced direction of Veronica Brady.
“Athough she’s been gone out of here for over a year now, I swear to God her fragrance still lingers about the place,” mild-mannered 40ish Artie (Michael Hyland) reveals in Belfry’s opening scene, though, he assures us, “It’s thanks to her that I have a past worth talkin’ about at all I suppose. There are days now when I find myself draggin’ her memory behind me everywhere I go. She tapped a hidden reservoir inside of me that I didn’t know was there.”
Artie’s fourth-wall-breaking monologs take us back in time to before, during, and after his impossible love affair with church volunteer Angela (Rebekah Tripp) as he reflects upon his life with wisdom gained through love and loss.
Church duties, along with caring for an aged, infirm mother, have left Artie little time for socializing, his everyday interactions restricted to time spent with young parish priest Father Pat (Graham Sibley) and “simple-minded” teenage altar boy Dominic (Daniel David Stewart), along with occasional visits by Angela’s handball-playing husband Donal (John Rushing).
It’s no wonder, then, that Artie quickly finds himself unable to resist Angela’s spell, a birthday celebration for Dominic providing the catalyst for romantic sparks to ignite between them, and while Artie can’t help but hope for a future with his beloved, the object of his affections takes a far more pragmatic view of things.
When an anonymous letter alerts Donal to what’s been going on up in the church belfry, any hopes Artie might harbor of a fairytale ending go up in smoke, something we’ve been alerted to from his opening monolog.
As bittersweet as Belfry may be, it is filled with the beauty of playwright Roche’s simple yet poetic words, the cumulative effect of which makes his tale of ordinary people quite extraordinary indeed.
What a shame it is that the 65-year-old Irish master’s oeuvre isn’t produced nearly as often as plays by the younger, better-known Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. It’s taken over thirty years for Belfry to make it from its London premiere in 1991 to the Malibu Playhouse, however in the case of this third of Roche’s Wexford Trilogy, three decades late is far better than never.
Though the role of Archie seems intended for someone less youthful and leading-man appealing than Hyland, the charismatic actor’s truly lovely work as Belfry’s protagonist/narrator grabs us from the get-go and keeps us wishing for a miracle for Artie, despite our foreknowledge of that impossibility.
Tripp’s equally lovely performance as Angela is so authentic, you’d swear she’d just popped in from an Irish village to “change the flowers in the chapel and to look after the altar,” the chemistry between the two leads only adding to the reality of their performances.
Sibley does powerful work too as a priest facing his own crisis of identity and faith reflected in his chain-smoking and fondness for a tipple, while the dynamic Rushing is likewise terrific as a husband faced with a wife’s infidelity.
Most memorable of all is the brilliant twenty-year-old Stewart, who won a Best Actor Scenie at age seventeen for his work at the Rubicon in “Master Harold”…and the boys. “Expect much much more from this gifted newcomer,” I wrote at the time, prophetic words given Stewart’s heartbreakingly real work in Belfry as a young man with the misfortune to be born before Asperger syndrome became part of our collective lexicon. That Stewart joined the cast less than ten days before opening night makes his multi-layered performance here all the more remarkable.
Roche’s non-linear storytelling can prove a tad confusing. For instance, Artie and Angela’s first kiss seems to come a bit out of nowhere, and it’s only post-intermission that we see what led up to it. Also, entire sentences can get swallowed up by the cast’s perhaps too authentic Irish accents, a case in which a bit more “modification” for American audiences might better serve Roche’s words.
These are minor quibbles, however, in a production that, like September’s season opener The Dream Of The Burning Boy, make it abundantly clear that Malibu Playhouse’s decision to bring Gene Franklin Smith on board as artistic director was a savvy one.
L.A. scenic design newcomer Erin Walley follows her finely detailed Burning Boy set with another winner, ingeniously integrating Malibu Playhouse’s peaked wooden ceiling into Belfry’s vestry and titular bell tower to make us believe we are right there in the pews of Father Pat’s church. L.A. theater mainstay Jeremy Pivnick lights Walley’s set with his accustomed artistry, while prop designer Hannah Lowe dresses the set with just-right accoutrements. Andrea Wheeler gets top marks for her character-appropriate costuming, as does Bruce Greenspan for his accomplished sound design—the bells really do sound as if they’re being rung from the belfry—and music director Shark for his mood-setting original Irish tunes.
Belfry is produced by Smith and Claudia Zahn. Nicholas Acciani is production stage manager.
To the L.A. neighborhoods and neighboring communities of North Hollywood, Long Beach, Santa Monica, Hollywood, Pasadena, South Bay Cities, Burbank, and the like, the time has come to add the town of Malibu to our thriving Los Angeles theater scene. If The Dream Of The Burning Boy and Belfry are any indication of things to come, Malibu Playhouse-goers are in for some exciting theater in the months to come.
Malibu Playhouse, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu.
January 31, 2014
Photos: Brian McCarthy