Christopher Borger, Amber Gray, David Lansbury and Malcolm Gets
in a scene from Banished Children of Eve
(Photo credit: Carol Rosegg )
The stage of the Irish Repertory Theatre is teeming with the denizens of New York City, circa July 1863. Ciarán O’Reilly has staged Kelly Younger’s sprawling adaptation of Peter Quinn’s 1994 historical novel, Banished Children of Eve, with an eye toward the epic. This world premiere production uses a cast of ten including Broadway musical star Malcolm Gets, but the vivid sound design by Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery and the many plot strands make you believe that thousands of New Yorkers have taken to the streets for the Civil War Draft Riots.
The background to the play which is very well explained in program notes by Quinn are the Draft Riots, an insurrection as well as a race riot, which took place in Manhattan from July 13 to 17, 1863, a week of continual violence. What caused this event was the Civil War Congress of the United States’ passage of the Conscription Act which required every male between the ages of 20 and 35 and every unmarried man between the ages of 35 and 45 to enroll for the military draft. Those who could hire and equip a substitute would be excused. For $300, one could also be excused during this first round.
The problem was that many working-class whites, predominantly Irish, who could not afford the $300, believed that if they were drafted, newly freed slaves would flood up north and replace them at their jobs. Although this was basically untrue, this fueled the ugly racial part of the riots in which African-Americans were hunted, beaten, tortured or lynched. In addition, the day after the first draft was a Sunday, not only a day of leisure in which to ponder the new state of affairs, but it was also Orangemen’s Day, the day when Irish Protestants celebrated the defeat of the Catholics at the Battle of Boyne. The riots began with the second day of the draft on Monday and continued until Friday when Federal reinforcements finally arrived to support the local garrison.
The play tells the interwoven stories of alcoholic songwriter Stephen Foster now in his last year at age 37; Jack Mulcahey, an Irish minstrel actor appearing in blackface; his lover Eliza, a mulatto actress playing the white Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Squirt, a 13-year-old African-American street urchin befriended by Jack and Eliza; Jimmy Dunne, an Irish-American hustler who has fallen into bad company; Margaret O’Driscoll, a recently arrived Irish maid working for a well-to-do family; Euphemia Blanchard, an African-American fishmonger who has brought Eliza up; and Waldo Capshaw, a Yankee thief and petty criminal who hopes to take advantage of the riots to commit undetected burglary. All of these characters’ lives intersect during this fateful week and none of them will ever be the same again.
The plot thickens when Jack and Eliza make plans to go to Canada where they can live openly, and Waldo convinces Jack to romance Margaret in order to get keys to her employer’s home: the reward for Jack, the $300 he needs to avoid the draft. Charlie Corcoran’s ingenious setting allows for swift changes from the streets of New York to the interior of the Bowery Minstrel Theatre to McSorley’s Ale House to the New England Hotel and back again. Famous Stephen Foster songs are performed, often with live accompaniment by Gets, to set both the mood and the historical time period. Brian Nason’s exciting lighting design will have you believe that much of New York is on fire, right on the stage of the Irish Repertory Theatre.
The play’s flaw is that not all of the characters are equally well written. Adapting a 624 page novel, Younger has had to pick and choose. On some of the characters we are given no background; others are mere stereotypes that are not made individual. However, the play’s epic sweep and O’Reilly’s robust and exciting direction does not allow interest to flag for a moment or even time to ask questions about unexplored issues.
The women’s roles appear to be better drawn than the men’s, although this may simply be a reflection of their impassioned performances. As the frightened actress keeping up the pretense of being someone she isn’t, Amber Gray gives the most dynamic performance in the play, seeming to live on her emotions as the rioting turns worse. Patrice Johnson brings authenticity to the role of the fishmonger who has seen it all and knows how to deal with the harsh realities of her life. In the underwritten role of the Irish maid who has had her head turned by the attentions of the seemingly sophisticated Jimmy Dunne, Amanda Quaid makes much out of little.
At the outset it seems that Gets as the alcoholic Foster will be a sort of link between the characters, but very quickly his role becomes minor and he has very little to do. More central to the story is David Lansbury’s equally conflicted Jack Mulcahey. While Lansbury is forceful and sturdy as this tragic hero who dreams of the day when Eliza can appear on stage with him as a black woman, he has not explored all facets of his character. As the villainous Capshaw, Graeme Malcolm is simply a cliché out of old-time melodrama.
Jonny Orsini is pleasant as the young man who will do almost anything to get out of the draft but demonstrates that even he has limits. Teenaged Christopher Borger is fine in the undefined role of Squirt. The cast is rounded out by Rory Duffy and Kern McFadden who play multiple assorted roles throughout the evening. All are costumed in the vivid clothing of the period by Martha Hally.
Kelly Younger’s Banished Children of Eve does the seeming impossible by putting Peter Quinn’s epic novel on stage while at the same time retaining the intimacy of its individual stories. This colorful history is excitingly staged by Ciarán O’Reilly while the cast of ten peoples an entire world of 1863 New York. Their energy and exuberance is catching.
The Banished Children of Eve (through December 5)
The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-727-2737 or http://www.irishrep.org