BRIAN FRIEL has made an expressive and affecting play out of a familiar situation. Gareth O'Donnell is a lonely and introverted young Irishman, uneasy with the bravado of his fellows, and unable to open himself up to his father or the girl he lacked the courage to marry. At age 25 he has decided to leave the dead-end of village life for the land of air-conditioning and color TV, where "the devil himself holds sway and lust is everywhere indulged in shamelessly." On the eve of his departure, he reviews for the last time his unresolved memories of the life he is leaving and his hopes and dreams of the life to come.
A sullen, taciturn central character entails a dramatic hazard which Friel sidesteps entirely: he divides his hero in two--accompanying the "public" Gar on stage is another one, representing his inner voice, and apparent only to his counterpart and to the audience. Friel handles this gimmick with wit and versatility. The inner Gar expresses what the other cannot, in a sardonic running commentary on Gar's quiet interaction with the other characters. When the Gars are alone, the inner self serves both as conscience and provocateur.
So do Mark and Steven O'Donnell as the double Gar in the Leverett House production. The O'Donnell brothers look very much alike and work well together. Shared nuances of expression often reflect an undercurrent of feeling at difficult moments, as when the inner Gar expresses the emotions his alter ego is at pains to conceal.
The heart of the play is Gar's relationship to his father (his mother died, as one would predict, in childbirth). No warmth passes between the two, for which Gar is bitterly resentful and partly responsible, but their memories and dreams of a past, happier time surface again and again throughout the play and finally bring them to the edge of an understanding in a sleepless, early morning scene.
The inexpressive S.B. O'Donnell is played competently, but with perhaps too much reserve, by Timothy Cunningham--"just because he doesn't say much doesn't mean he hasn't feelings like the rest of us," says the warm, wise housekeeper. The rest of the cast goes far toward filling out some rather stereotyped supporting roles. James Doherty provides a keenly poignant moment as the pathetic schoolmaster comes to say goodbye to his old pupil.
Jeff Melvoin's staging is imaginative and carefully judged. There are a few slips, such as the pointless added scenes of Gar awkwardly playing a tune on a recorder, but the careful pacing and the attention to detail is on a level above that of most theater at Harvard. So the decision to perform in the round stands out as particularly deplorable. With the audience on all four sides of the set it's impossible to avoid featuring the backs of too many heads for too long. A few fluid scenes benefit from the extra freedom of movement a lack of directional focus provides, but most of the time the audience is entirely shut out of one side or another of the drama. Not many student shows attend as sensitively as this one to gesture and detail--it's too bad that so much of it can't be seen.