The Campbell House becomes an Irish pub for Fly on the Wall Theatre's intoxicating production of Conor McPherson's Port Authority.
“Museum theatre” is usually a pejorative term, suggesting productions that are old-fashioned and lifeless. That hasn’t been the case, however, with the theatre we’ve seen at the Campbell House Museum.
The lovingly restored 1822 home of Chief Justice Sir William Campbell—sitting kitty-corner to the gleaming Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts at the intersection of Queen Street and University Avenue—has proved an excellent venue for intimate indie theatre, whether it’s a walkabout version of Henry James’ haunted-house classic The Turn of the Screw or a new translation of Strindberg’s below-the-stairs tragedy Miss Julie, performed in the museum’s kitchen.
The Campbell House is currently occupied by Fly on the Wall Theatre, which has turned the museum’s dining room into a cozy Irish pub for a production of Conor McPherson’s Port Authority. The audience is seated at tables, Guinness and Jameson are on sale at a corner bar (wine, too), and the convivial atmosphere puts you in the mood for some first-class storytelling.
That, of course, is what we’ve come to expect from Irish playwright McPherson, whose work includes that canny ghost story The Weir (actually set in a pub) and the supernatural black comedy The Seafarer. His Port Authority dates from 2001—as you might guess from its references to The Lemonheads and the Jesus and Mary Chain, if not from its allusions to the heady days of the Celtic Tiger. With three monologues spoken by three generations of Irishmen, it’s an ironically compelling glimpse into low-key lives. McPherson’s Dubliners are men of inaction: the yearning best friend of the beautiful girl; the wallflower at the school dance; the husband who muses about an extramarital affair but never acts on it. These are guys who are content to, in the words of one of them, “go with the flow.”
The youngest is Kevin (Anthony MacMahon), who recounts his first experience living away from home, in a party house shared with aspiring rock musicians and accomplished boozers. While Kevin acquires a girlfriend in Trish, an oversexed barmaid, his real affinity is for housemate Claire, who treats him like a brother.
Middle-aged Dermot (David Mackett) is luckier. A lifetime loser, he tells of unexpectedly landing a sweet job with a prestigious money-management firm and suddenly finding himself jetting to L.A. for a lost weekend of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It seems too good to be true—we’ll leave it at that.
Meanwhile, Joe (Patrick Monaghan), a widower living in an old-age home, receives the mysterious gift of a photograph that gets him reminiscing about an unrequited love from long ago.
The men tell their stories directly to us, never interacting with each other, although the three turn out to be tenuously connected. But this is not like that other Irish triad of monologues, Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus, staged memorably by Outside the March a few seasons ago, which involved lives that fatally collide. The real link between McPherson’s men is thematic. All are touched in some way by a love that redeems their otherwise disappointing lives.
Since this is an Irish play, let’s say the actors are like lager, porter and fine whisky. MacMahon’s Kevin has the mildest effect: his stolid, bearded Kevin exudes a wry humour spiced with melancholy. Mackett’s performance is more full-bodied: his wiry, saucer-eyed Dermot has the look of man perpetually gobsmacked; but those eyes grow moist with quiet pathos when he finally realizes the unconditional love his wife and son have given him, which he has never adequately returned.
It’s Monaghan, however, who serves us acting to savour. Looking a little like the beloved Irish actor Milo O’Shea (it must be those ebony eyebrows), Monaghan’s Joe is a rich portrayal; with a ruddy face, a throaty laugh, and a gleam of mischief in his eye, he might be the picture of elderly contentment—if he weren’t troubled by a fleeting chance at a greater happiness that he let slip away.
With an unadorned staging Rod Ceballos (who directed that kitchen-set Miss Julie) puts his trust in the actors’ skills and the playwright’s vividly detailed narratives. Messrs. MacMahon, Mackett, and Monaghan fill a corner of the room, taking turns regaling us as if we were a small group of confidantes. In between they lapse into meditation. At the end of this 90-minute show, you’ll be left with something to think about, too.