THE TITLE of Deirdre Kinahan’s new play does not refer to some golden-age of the past, but to the present moment of her touching drama, as a pair of ailing residents in a nursing home find friendship in their dying days. Sean is an actor stricken by dementia and a stoic acceptance that his life is over. Patricia is a former-teacher burdened by sudden strokes and a refusal to relinquish her independence. What brings them together is a shared love of the theatre, music, dance. What will rend them apart is their inescapable fate: their own mortality.
The tightly-worked form of Halcyon Days is the old-fashioned naturalistic one-act, which David Horan’s subtle direction and Maree Kearn’s cold conservatory set does little to disturb. This is no metaphorical purgatory, despite the early suggestions of Kevin Smith’s inviting doorways, where the nurses hover off-stage, except in the sense that all acts of waiting might be described as a limbo. The tone, meanwhile, is unavoidably sentimental, as the logic of the characters’ fore-shortened lives works itself out.
What distinguishes Kinahan’s play – what gives it its pulse – is its finely-drawn characters. Sean has the sharp intelligence of a man who knows he has been beaten, but Patricia shows him that there are new roles he can play, even from his wheelchair. Patricia, meanwhile, brings giddy effervescence to her self-denial. Calisthenics, fish-oil, walnuts: she will fight her fate until she is forced to embrace it, and Sean, with his merciful acceptance of his new reality, frees her to do just that.
Kinahan could ask for no better actors than Stephen Brennan and Anita Reeves to bring her characters to life. With his eyes magnified behind large glasses, Brennan veers between frail shadow and robust romantics in a performance of physical vulnerability that is animated by flashes of an actorly bearing. Reeves is jauntily defiant in her encouragement of Sean, but moments of stillness – an outdoor scene where she sits alone in the sun, say – reveal her helplessness: it is written all over her face.
The constraints of naturalism mean there is only one way for Halcyon Days to end: with a predictable melodramatic flourish. However, Brennan and Reeves look like they are having such a good time on the journey there, that you would easily forgive the schmaltzy final scenes.
– Sara Keating