The new play On Blueberry Hill by Irish writer Sebastian Barry edges close to being a small dark masterpiece, and was acted with acute insight and jarring force by a duo of brilliantly effective Irish actors: Nial Buggy and David Ganly from Dublin’s Fishambles Company. It was directed by Jim Cullenon and was at 59E59 Theatres as part of the 11th Anniversary of Origin’s 1st Irish Festival.
The setting is 2010 in a bleak prison cell in Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail, drearily designed by Sabine Dargent and eerily lit by Mark Galione with a Sellotaped radio with a local blaring announcer Ronan Collins talking about Antoine “Fats” Domino’s biggest hit “On Blueberry Hill.” Christy Dwyer, the older, balding inmate in his late 60s, was a working class tinker before his incarceration. The younger fella PJ is in his 50s from Dublin with a middle-class accent, and he was a young seminarian when he was apprehended. At first their monologues are mostly nostalgic about the happier days in their lives. PJ remembers his mother’s crying about Kennedy’s death in 1963 when he was just a kid and had no idea who Kennedy was. And Ireland’s murderous times up North with the “Troubles” of the 1960s never seemed to flow down to him in his little southern neighborhood.
Everyone went to mass and believed in God. PJ's father died and left his mother a civil service pension, which was supplemented by her by working at an Irish sweepstakes office in a nearby town. Christy came from a family of seven brothers and sisters. His dad was a tinker, the most famous of his time. A daft cousin, Con Daly, had a feud fight with his dad and and stabbed him in his heart with a knife. Christy was seven and his dad was 26. At age 14, each child left school and got a job. He got one at a local posh golf club and got to caddie for an old local Irish stage and Oscar-winning Hollywood film star, Barry Fitzgerald, who size-wise looked like a leprechaun. But Christy had his father’s tinker’s urge in his socks. When he started to work as a tinker, he discovered that there were many tinkers who were geniuses. They could do the most skilled work like artists.
PJ, as a seminarian, met young Peadar Dwyer at an annual retreat. In those days, there seemed to be hundreds of priests wandering around in Ireland. Peader was a boy who shined with beauty. He was almost girlish. He was from Monkstown, which was full of nice council houses. If you were a stranger, you could be murdered crossing Monkstown’s Dundin Field.
When PJ and Peadar took the boat to Aran, Inishmore, he didn’t know the trip would change his life. He didn't know he would push Peadar Dwyer off the cliff near White's beach. Both PJ and Christy had intertwined, with tiny vicious killing moments that altered each of their lives forever. For two years, no one knew who killed PJ's mother. Then it became a poisoned rat inside of Christy and he had to tell his wife Christine. She immediately reported it to the police and he was convicted.
McAllister, which Christy and PJ called “The Screw,” who was one of the heads of the Mountjoy prison, thought it would be a funny joke to put these two sorrowful people together. The riddle of the play is this confrontation. They both could see that each of them was wedded in this lost world. PJ and Christy, though they each hated one another, had to be finally abated. A kind of camaraderie was established.
Barry began his career as a poet, and he gives the play a wonderful lyrical eloquence, though it has an inane sadness. There is also plenty of humor threaded into On Blueberry Hill. After his early days as a poet, Barry went onto be a playwright. One of my favorite Barry plays was the larger work The Steward of Christendom (1995) about his grandfather Thomas Dunne, the last catholic head of Dublin's Metropolitan Police. It starred the late brilliant Irish actor Donal McCann and played at BAM. In recent years his novels seem to have occupied his time, and he is the first novelist to win two Costa Awards, for A Long, Long Way and The Secret Scripture.
What hinders On Blueberry Hill is that toward the last quarter of the play there are too many coincidences and contrivances. Especially with McAllister, The Screw, who we never meet – and why he decides to put these two joined convicted killers together in a cruel move. Shouldn't he have been a saner democratic person like our George Mitchell, who served as a peace interpreter in Ireland in 1998?
The achievement of Barry in the play is that he makes these characters individuals yet somehow like universal representatives of the world they are thrown into. This is a drama of desperation, complex and profound. It has the fascination of a foggy mystery melodrama, which on one level it is. But the mystery lies deep in the hearts of PJ and Christy, who hate each other at first but then form a connection. Yet it leaves an audience not completely satisfied and still with questions. Still, Barry is a mesmerizing writer even with a two-hander play like On Blueberry Hill.