‘The Steward of Christendom’: The stewards are sometimes left to stew

Serving your country doesn’t always bring honor, especially in a region as troubled as Ireland as we see in this somber play, “The Steward of Christendom.” Drawing from his own family background Sebastian Barry examines a once proud and powerful man in his later years, remembering and forgetting under the cruel mistress of old age.

Rising to be a steward doesn’t mean one really rules, but has authority under the powers that be. In this case, Christendom isn’t set against Judaism, Islam or Buddhism. In Ireland as with Great Britain, this is Christians set against other Christians because a king wanted a male heir. King Henry VIII died in 1547, but his legacy, in bitter civil war between the Protestants and Catholics, continues even today. The play itself is set in 1932, in a county mental home in Baltinglass County Wicklow, Ireland.

According to the program notes, Barry’s great-grandfather, Thomas Dunne, was the last Catholic head of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.  As such, he was responsible for Dublin Castle, the headquarters for the British rule. He was allowed space for his family to live in the castle. Barry’s father eventually went a bit senile and his behavior  was questionable enough that his grandchildren were kept away from him.

The castle was originally build by an English king in 1204 and eventually became the center of the British government in Ireland with offices and living quarters.

The regime changed in 1922: Northern Ireland remained under British rule. Dublin was part of the Republic of Ireland–free of the British rule. Irish nationalists had won the day and the so-called Castle Catholics were no longer the loyalists.

As the fictional Thomas Dunne (Brian Dennehy) lives mostly in his memory. His children have given a private room that is upstairs, perhaps on the top floor or attic with a large skylight window allowing natural light to caress the cheeks of a man who is alone in life, but keeps company with his memories. His male attendant Smith (James Lancaster) has little patience with this old, senile man. The woman, Mrs. O’Dea (Mary-Pat Green), is more patient, worrying about Dunne’s clothing.

In his memory, Thomas Dunne sees his daughters as young women who grow gradually older, but his son, Willy, remains always a child (Grant Palmer/Daniel Weinstein). “You cannnot lose a son without blaming yourself,” Thomas Dunne explains.

If you’re not up on Irish history, don’t worry. The program will bring you up to speed on “The World of Thomas Dunne.” The world of order that Thomas Dunne knew was overturned when the people the Dublin Metropolitan Police confronted, such as James Larkin, became heroes. In the play, Dunne orders the police to attack striking workers organized by Larkin. In this actual 1913 event, two men died as a result. The one man who might have united the two Irelands in 1922, Michael Collins, was assassinated in August of that year.

Thomas Dunne finds his years of service provide him with little reward and for his daughters, his service casts a shadow over their lives.

Dennehy is a large, barrel-chested man. He conveys strength and yet decay. Don’t expect to see a six-pack when he’s briefly nude. The nudity is but a manifestation of the indignities of growing old and being cared for by strangers. There’s something poignant about seeing a physically powerful man defeated by his own mind.

Green is kindly but practical as one of his caretakers. Lancaster warms a bit as the play wears on.

On the night I saw the production, Willy was played by Grant Palmer with heartbreaking freshness and wonder. Although we learn that Willy wasn’t a child when he died, perhaps, Thomas Dunne fears his son’s judgment on things as they turned out.

This isn’t a dysfunctional family, but a family raised with love and honor only to be betrayed by history, in a nation that changed hands and left the stewards of the former regime lost and displaced in the land that they know as home.

That’s something to consider as we look at countries struggling today, now independent but formerly colonized under some imperial power. It’s something to consider today as the wars continue because the losers will likely remain in a home that doesn’t welcome them and might even hold them up to account for their actions for when they were stewards of another nation.

“The Steward of Christendom” continues at the Mark Taper Forum until 4 January 2014.

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