At the Music Box Theatre, the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, last seen on Broadway in an acclaimed 2016 production of Long Day’s Journey into Night, is back with his own fraught family memories. Scenic designer Sinéad McKenna triple frames them in a receding line that dead ends at a shattered mirror, metaphorically tipping off the audience to the fascinating paradox at the heart of Byrne’s solo show, Walking with Ghosts, an adapted version of his recently published and identically titled memoir. In both forms, Byrne upends the expectations of the genre, as his revelations about the past don’t necessarily make him less elusive, even to himself.
Byrne presents his personal history as a series of mostly chronological vignettes that elegiacally recount a youth he is ready to lay to rest. With a mix of wonder, horror, and confusion in his eyes, it’s as if the reminiscences Byrne conjures of that formative time are as new to him as they are to us, which, after whirlwind productions of the play in Dublin, Edinburgh, and London, is a remarkable affectation to convincingly maintain. Then, again, it also wouldn’t surprise me if Byrne really is perpetually seeing something new in the hypnotically lilting monologues he stitches together into a life tapestry still marked by both faint patches and those simply too painful to behold for long.
Byrne doesn’t struggle so much with the facts of what happened as with their meaning, especially as they might all cohere into an ultimate one. Named for the archangel who gave the Virgin Mary the good news, what Byrne, by devastating contrast, relays to us are the traumas of his Catholic upbringing, which include corporal punishment for answering a math problem incorrectly and, after leaving his Dublin home for an English seminary, falling prey to a deviant priest who had intuited his vulnerabilities. Byrne conveys these horrific scenes of abuse with harrowing specificity, but there is a sense he is also keeping them at arm’s length, as if the storyteller and the subject aren’t the same person. Perhaps, when it comes to this part of his life, Byrne needs that performative buffer.
A good dramaturg, or therapist, might have pushed a little harder to lessen this emotional distance, but director Lonny Price is content to let Byrne keep it as wide as he sees fit. That might not be the best choice for the play, but, if it’s the right one for the man, then so be it. Besides, as the title suggests, Byrne’s focus is as much on others as it is on himself and, in turning his attention toward those he’s lost, Byrne comes much closer to fully reconnecting with the past, even finding snippets of long-unheard voices within his, admittedly, not always reliable memories.
Grappling with the slipperiness of those memories, the septuagenarian Byrne asks himself, “Why do we remember inconsequential things about the people we love, and the big moments fade away?” Uttered late in the play, this rhetorical observation is the hesitant lead-in to Byrne’s lovingly honest attempt to finally come to terms with not only his parents’ deaths but, more importantly, their time on this earth. Having lived the majority of his own existence, Byrne can now see them through empathetic eyes, but all that means is being left with other sadly unanswerable questions: did marriage and children make his mother happy?; did his father ever feel betrayed by a political and economic system that abandoned him in middle age?; or, back to the personal, is it possible to feel parental pride despite a child’s shortcomings? Like a lot of us, Byrne finds it difficult to endure the judgment of the dead.
Hopefully, at this point, it’s clear that Byrne does not divulge any dishy details about past relationships with co-stars or from his work in film (The Usual Suspects), television (In Treatment), or onstage (in New York, his growly voice and strong features have served Eugene O’Neill well). Of the ghosts he mentions, the only famous one is Richard Burton who took him under his soused wing during a poorly regarded 1983 miniseries about the German composer Richard Wagner. Arguably the biggest star in a cast of British acting royalty (Richardson, Gielgud, Olivier), Burton was nearing the end of a career, and life, that served as a cautionary example for Byrne, though it would take another quarter century before Byrne heeded it to escape the grip of his own alcoholism.
Walking with Ghosts is a decidedly intimate experience, one that seems tailor-made for an off-Broadway theater like the Irish Rep. Price and his production team try to expand the show to Broadway proportions through McKenna’s lighting and aforementioned set and Sinéad Diskin’s vivid sound design. But its true scale is human, which means all that’s required is Byrne and his bravery.
Walking with Ghosts (through November 20, 2022)
Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.gabrielbyrneonbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission