Chicago — for obvious reasons — long has welcomed and supported contemporary Irish drama. Most of the writers here embraced, through, have been men. But the gripping, authentic new family drama at Steep Theatre, where nobody moved so much as a muscle for two hours on Friday night, is the work of Deirdre Kinahan, a playwright whose name you may not yet know but whose structural chops are as formidable as her empathy for what can happen to an otherwise accomplished professional person when she returns to her mum's house for tea. Kinahan, who runs a theater company in County Meath, is no Irish bad-boy in the Martin McDonagh mode, nor a fevered storyteller like Mark O'Rowe or Conor McPherson. This is a straightforward truthteller who understands how families interact.
Steep is billing Jonathan Berry's production of "Moment," a play that caused something of a critical splash at the Bush Theatre in London in 2011, as the work's American premiere. I did see a report of a student production earlier this year at Smith College, but this is certainly a powerful new play that has not had a New York production, that very few around these parts have seen — and that's an excellent match for the work of a talented Chicago director who has made something of a personal specialty of unraveling family secrets, working in a 60-seat house where there is nowhere for anyone to escape.
Like "Festen," which Berry staged here with similar veracity and attention to detail, "Moment" has, buried within its seemingly conventional structure, a terrible family secret.
But one of the many things that makes this play distinctive is that the secret — I'll say it's a criminal act and leave it at that — long has been known to everyone in a family that consists of matriarch Teresa (Maggie Cain) and her three adult children: Niamh (Cynthia Marker), Ciara (Julia Siple) and Nial (Josh Odor). It's Nial whose heinous youthful act upended an otherwise conventional Irish family whose children have gone on to professional careers. Nial, who has served his time and re-emerged as a kind of celebrity artist, has even been forgiven by his mother, it seems, although Kinahan works in the quiet suggestion that his mother's apparent slight dementia and love for prescription drugs are not entirely disconnected from the trauma her son caused. His late dad was on his side, too, dedicating much of what remained of his life to Nial's exoneration and dying in the middle of the quest.
But the Lynch sisters are another matter. The insighting incident here is Nial's arrival at his mother's house, replete with a progressive English wife named Ruth (carefully played by Carey Lee Burton), following a long time away. His sister Niamh, bustling in and out of her mum's house with her on-off boyfriend Finn (Alex Gillmor) doesn't really want to see him but is drawn like a moth to a flame that could scorch its wings. Kinahan's picture of Niamh, aided by a wound-tight performance from Marker, is richly complex: we see a woman now leery of trust and relationships and wholly uncomfortable with the treatment afforded a prodigal son, and yet smart enough to beat herself up for it. Kinahan is clearly sympathetic, but she also reveals how resentment exacts a price. Siple's empathetic Ciara yet offers another recognizable side — a woman not given to the anger of her sister and thus far more functional, but whose questions and anguish and sadness all remain.
Berry carefully unwinds the set-up to this story — and then lets it all explode just before intermission in a burst of collective anger and frustration that he lets rage before suddenly cutting off our view, cold. It's a very fine Act 1 curtain; it's as if Berry just cut a power cord, and you see the audience first frustrated and then subdued and thoughtful.
"Moment" is a play that lasts well beyond the moment. Rattling it around in my head these last hours, I've been thinking about the veracity of its picture of what it's like to be a spouse or a lover when your partner's family blows up around you: All three of these adult children have in-the-room partners of varying levels of commitment (James Allen plays Dave, Ciara's nice-guy hubby), and you see here what's it like to try and stay out of something, or support someone, or take a stand, or not. If you've ever been there, you'll get what Kinahan's saying immediately. This is a play that dances deftly on the knife-edge of normalcy — a play that's asking, really, if and when some semblance of normalcy should ever return to a family. You can also see the piece as a meditation on the new Ireland, a Celtic Tiger tamed by austerity measures and engaged anew in reconciling Old World notions of guilt and redemption with New World notions of rapid, reality TV-style reinvention. Crucially, Kinahan has sympathy for both.
But this is also as wise and subtle a study as you'll see of straight-up sibling rivalry and familial sexism. With the help of the costumer Alison Siple and his very handsome actor, Odor, Berry turns Nial into a guy who clearly has exploited notoriety and progressive ideas and benefited from the celebrity culture of modern Ireland. You're right there with his sisters, struggling day to day and hugely irritated that he gets any benefit at all, let alone a beautiful young woman and gallery openings. Then again, as his smart sisters also know, family is family and jealousy only eats you up.
When: Through Aug. 18
Where: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Tickets: $20-$22 at 866-811-4111 or steeptheatre.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye