Governments hiding their crimes is nothing new but under the pen of Irish playwright Brian Friel, the fabric of injustice is plain as day. The revival of the 1973 drama The Freedom of the City, at The Irish Repertory Theatre recalls the events of Jan. 30, 1972, known as Bloody Sunday when twelve unarmed marchers in Derry were brutally murdered.
The outcome is known from the start, but under Ciaran O’Rielly’s direction the emotional impact hits like the 34 bullets that killed them in cold blood.
The play interweaves the ‘present’ with the final hours of three peaceful marchers who accidentally stumble into the Mayor’s parlour after besieged with tear gas. As a British magistrate (John C. Vennema) conducts a an inquiry into the deaths, we meet Lily (Cara Seymour), a 43-year-old mother of eleven, Michael (James Russell), a 22-year-old man (unemployed), and ‘Skinner’ (Joseph Sikora), 21 unemployed without residence ( he signs himself as Freeman of the City in the Visitor’s Book.) The inquisitor ignores the inconsistent testimony in favor of the British. The Irish priest (Ciaran Byrne), speaks to his congregation about the injustice as the balladeer (Clark Carmichael) makes the slain into folk heroes. A television news reporter and an American sociologist both played by Christa Scott-Reed, get their points of view across even if they are patronizing and self serving.
By the end it doesn’t matter what the truth is. Truth did not reach the light of day until June 15, 2010 when the case was re-open and the report found that all of those shot were unarmed, and that the killings were both “unjustified and unjustifiable.”
The three leads all give a voice to a still escalating problem of poverty and the way to get out. As Skinner, Joseph Sikora shows if you can’t join them then you might as well have a good time trying. In Sikora’s performance we see the pain wrapped into a jovial facade. Russell’s performance as Michael bordered on anger shown by yelling his innocence idealism. As Lily, Ms Seymour heartbreakingly performance haunts us with her denial of how bad she has it and again covers it with optimism. Broke, husband who doesn’t work, eleven children thanks to the Catholic rule of no contraception, one child a mongrel, treated like a slave, verbally abused, slave to her family who lives 7 to a room, no hope and yet when she dies she regrets she has not lived.
Charlie Corcoran’s set and Michael Gottlieb’s spot on lighting created a world of no escape where God is watching but silent in their hour of need.
The Freedom of the City: The Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd St. through Jan. 2oth