Maeve’s House

Eamon Morrissey’s New York encounter with Maeve Brennan forms the basis of this show, and it struggles to escape its source material

Fri, Sep 27, 2013, 13:14

Peacock Theatre

***

In 1966 on a subway ride through the bowels of New York, actor Eamon Morrissey found himself transported home; not just to Dublin, which he had recently left for Broadway, but to the red-brick house with the creaking bannister on Cherryfield Avenue in Ranelagh where he had grown up. It is the writer Maeve Brennan who produces this uncanny stirring of homesickness in him. Brennan, a literary legend at the New Yorker magazine, grew up in that same house before him, and after the visceral, underground introduction to her work, Morrissey seeks her out.

Maeve’s House is, in part, the story of their brief encounter. It is also an affectionate paean to Brennan’s work. Director Gerard Stembridge roots the production in the here and now, and Morrissey addresses us from a subway platform: a “traveller in residence” through time. Niamh Lunny’s set and Kevin McFadden’s lights illuminate towers of words against a golden skyline with gorgeous effect. Despite the visual attractiveness of the theatrical setting, however, the production rarely transcends the literary nature of its inspiration.

Part of the problem is the way in which Morrissey uses Brennan’s work to punctuate his performance piece. The glimpses of characters such as Hugh and Rose Derdon evoke a loneliness that we see in Brennan’s autobiographical Long-Winded Lady columns, too – the writer sitting alone in a restaurant in the middle of an afternoon drinking martinis – and provide a poignant foreshadowing of her tragic, isolated death. However, the transitions between fact and fiction are not sharply delineated, and there is a hesitant quality to Morrissey’s performance; he seems always on the verge of a deeper revelation that never comes.

Indeed, this is the central conundrum of this theatricalised biography. Brennan’s story has already been well-told – in Angela Bourke’s landmark biography, Araby Productions’ 2003 documentary, and, most recently, Emma Donoghue’s play Talk of the Town, which premiered at last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. Brennan’s stories, meanwhile, have been embraced by the literary canon. What Morrissey can bring to them is an illumination not just of the haunting presence that Cherryfield Avenue had upon her life and work, but a personal engagement with that world: middle-class Dublin of the 1940s and 1950s, the artistic life, the experiences of the exile. It is here that Morrissey may find the means to stir the audience as Brennan’s stories still do.

Runs until October 12