Phillip McMahon: Come On Home, Abbey Theatre (Peacock Stage), Dublin (Director: Rachel O’Riordan)
By Sascha Krieger
Home is a drab living room. Shabby wall-paper, a well-worn armchair, an old sofa (set design: Colin Richmond). The light is always somewhat on the dim side. In the middle of the room: a coffin. The lady of the house has died, time for her disgraced gay son, a former seminarian thrown out of his education and then his home to return after 20 or so years. This is the setting of Phillip McMahon’s new play, produced on the Abbey’s Peacock stage by director Rachel O’Riordan. The sense and meaning of home has been at the heart of Irish theatre since it was created as a concept as part of the re-awakening of the idea of an Irish nation around the beginning of the last century – a process the creation of the Abbey was a key part of, by the way. Home is where the corpses are, the skeletons in the closet or in plain sight. Collective or personal, the past always seems present when Ireland is trying to find out who she is. May playwrights have wrestled with those demons, the ghosts of an insecure and repressive society, a religious dictatorship , a stifling authoritarian molarity driving generations away. Recently, Ireland has opened: marriage equality, abortion rights, attempts to uncover the past and heal its wounds. This is the backdrop of Come On Home, a reminder that there is still a long way to go.
Demons are plentiful in this room dominated by a dead body. The combined forces of Church hypocrisy and repressive morality have been at work here. Slowly, secrets are uncovered: a homosexual awakening the Church had its part in, sexual abuse, an overall inability to find a middle ground of communication. In a world in which there are so many taboos, words fail. And where there ar no words, love gets lost. Everyone here is bruised: gentle-mannered returnee Michael (Billy Carter) who has a hard time hiding all his pent-up angered, little brother and lost gentle soul Ray (Ian Lloyd Anderson), clinging to a sense of home more imagined than real, brutal older brother Brian (Declan Conlon), battling with a long hidden trauma, his wife Martina (Aislín McGuckin), responding to a lack of perspective with sarcastic self-reliance and Ray’s partner Aoife (Kathy Rose O’Brien), looking for a fresh start, one that as Martina tells her is impossible as you always take what keeps you up at night with you, wherever you go.
Come On Home is about that luggage one carries around, as an individual, as a society, and more often than not the two intertwine. McMahon packs a lot into his two-hour play: the moral strictness, hypocrisy and violence of the Church state, sexual repression, intolerance, a social climate averse to progress and stifling anything that appears as different. It’s all there, occasionally bordering on the clichéd and the too much, using well-worn tropes and plot lines that can feel a little contrived at times. Overall, O’Riordan’s tight, straight-forward and no-nonsense direction, however, does a good job in reigning in the packing everything into one play attitude the author cannot entirely escape from. The characters are well-formed, with a touch of complexity, each of them credibly hinting at substance underneath the surface. Which is rich enough in zinging one-liners, particularly by the two women (and delivered by both with fine comedic timing), which not only keeps the audience engaged but also establishes the female view as the one to look for if one’s is searching for a way out of the male-dominated mess one is stuck in.
In a way, the family in the play is a miniature version of modern-day Ireland: having moved on from moral and religious repression beyond the point of no return, yet still struggling with their demons. It’s the non-traditional voices, female and gay that lead the way in what is more than a naturalistic family drama – although it works very well on this level – but an exploration of the idea of home. Constantly the characters question its meaning, most of them discarding the idea. A home one is not welcome in, that stifles life and clips wings isn’t one. Michael in particular is uncomfortable with the concept, repeatedly trying to flee, feeling unfamiliar in the place. Characters keep leaving and coming back, planning escapes and being afraid of them. The comfortable idea of a place to come back to, no matter how flawed, no matter how much pain it entailed, is a mainstay of tales like this. McMahon, however, denies it. This home truly isn’t one, it lacks all of the nourishing, comforting, life-affirming qualities one would need in a home. „Come On Home“, the words Michael wished he had heard from his late father, bear no meaning. There is nothing to return to, „home“ must be created, no matter where. It is at this point that McMahon’s play goes beyond the well-established, presenting instead a more radical counter narrative. There is no closure, not even after the final confrontation with the priest who chose another path than Michael. Home is a process and it starts right here.