We gave it an A-
As one of the greatest living stage actors of our time, Brian Dennehy proves that less can definitely be more in a revival of Sebastian Barry’s 1995 drama The Steward of Christendom, running through Jan. 5 at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum. As an Irishman struggling to remember his past in a mental institution in 1932 Baltinglass, Dennehy wears a worn-out onesie on a spare set featuring only a bed, a chair, and a small table. He relies instead on his expressive imagination to fill the stage.
Dennehy completely exposes himself — both emotionally and, at one point, literally — as Thomas Dunne, Barry’s great-grandfather, the last Catholic head of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. By 1932, though, Dunne finds himself alone in a room in a psychiatric facility paid for by one of his daughters (played by Abby Wilde). He clearly is no longer the man he once was, but that?s not always so clear to Dunne himself. Dennehy plays Dunne with a combination of strength and fragility. Through inner monologues, interactions with two medical workers, and imagined flashbacks (beautifully directed by Steven Robman), we are given peeks into Dunne?s past and clues as to what brought such a powerful man to such a low place.
Non-history buffs may struggle with references to figures like Michael Collins and events like the Dublin Castle takeover. However, Dennehy’s performance is so powerful and moving that any confusion doesn?t matter. Even unfamiliar references can serve as examples of what made this particular man come undone. At 75, Dennehy convincingly plays an energetic and youthful 40-year-old in one scene, and then appears close to death in the next — without leaving the stage once throughout the play. When his spritely memories turn to resentful confusion, Dennehy is both terrifying and terrified.
The Steward of Christendom is a complicated memory play, going in and out of chronological order in a direct reflection of Dunne?s scattered mind. Barry seems to be exploring the nature of memory — not the particulars of who or what or when, but why they are there in the first place. A?
(Tickets: CenterTheatreGroup.org or 213-628-2772)