Violence breeds violence, and it often begins inside individuals who do not reconcile with their pasts, or attempt to reform themselves to seek more peaceful solutions for their inner hatreds and dark miseries. Victor M. McGowan (M. stands for murder) in The McGowan Trilogy, beautifully directed by Kira Simring, is one such individual.
Portrayed with stunning, visceral energy and moment-to-moment vitality by Paul Nugent – you can’t take your eyes off him, though initially he is loathsome – McGowan has matched up his skills and inner emotional swampland with the Irish Republican Army. The year is 1984 and the play reveals examples of his murderous handiwork and his increasingly surprising victims.
He and the IRA have a beautiful marriage as they fulfill each other’s needs. With them he is able to establish a reputation by putting his violent impulses in their service, receiving a place in the world that is ironically legitimate, though inherently evil. The IRA sets him on jobs that they know he will perform with impunity. He is very reliable and they are able to continually siphon the reservoir of his emotional dark side.
Playwright Seamus Scanlon has constructed a dynamic and unsettling portrait of the bellicose and unloving McGowan during the course of three acts which cleverly build upon each other. We learn from his mother and his mates that he was and always will be a “bad boy.” Whether there was hope for him early on is opaque, but he has grown into this epithet and he champions it, sometimes as a burden, but mostly in the scenes of interaction as something that he has taken to as a solid identity.
Each act heightens the macabre McGowan’s inner tensions and his struggle to avoid considering that his murderous acts may eventually being eating away at any emotional health he might have. On the surface it is as if he forces himself to enjoy killing, and eventually, he believes that he does for what if offers him. He suppresses good impulses and softness as weakness.
It is obvious from spending any time with him, as his IRA brothers do in a bar in the first act, that with them he embraces his malevolence because he is a compelling instrument for the times in Ireland. With his IRA kinsmen (fine performances by Matt Golden, Philip Callen, and Conor McIntyre), he displays sardonic humor and intelligent “good will.” But to what extent is it “an act to deceive”? McGowan keeps everyone in suspense, fear, or anger because he is unpredictable and crazy. Usually, the fact that he has shown up indicates that once again, at some point, and with the individuals he is meeting, he will spew death.
From this first act we understand that he is like the avenging angel. And those he kills have deserved their death at his hands. He will even have a pleasant repast with them, conversation, reminiscences and a few jokes before in a surprising turn (the most surprising to them, for he has put them off their guard), he swiftly does what he can do best, destroy life.
The playwright shows the potential dualism in McGowan’s personality in Act II and Act III. Act II is the most beautifully written of the acts and the most well acted, showing the underbelly of McGowan’s nature through his interchange with a woman who has apparently betrayed the IRA to the British. The portrayal of the woman by Anna Nugent and the scene between her and McGowan is powerful and poignant. The woman recalls their past together as children and the innocence they shared playing in the lake and the woods when, even then, McGowan was a “bad boy.” The act is thrilling because we understand the playwright’s nuances through the wonderful acting of Anna and Paul Nugent. Only in his interaction with the woman do we almost pity McGowan for the pathetic life he has chosen for himself. Both actors rise to a level of reality in their performances that is thrilling to watch. It is the highpoint of The McGowan Trilogy.
Our engagement with McGowan and the woman in Act II prepares us for Act III, by which point nothing surprises us about this feral man whose self-hate is inevitable and for whom we cannot muster much empathy. We only experience regret as we seem him interact with his senile mother who does not know him and takes him for someone more loving, an irony. That he has no identity with her, no place but a kind of oblivion is a symbol and theme not lost to us.
Nevertheless, though it is no explanation for the path he has chosen, seeing their relationship we understand that McGowan’s was a path that in a way was almost predetermined for him. This is not a sufficient rationalization, and as an explanation, it will not do to legitimize his choices. But the IRA was there for him to give him a place in the world, however loathsome and terrible. For him, it is something, but it isn’t enough. Likewise McGowan’s final choice in Act III weighs in with great sufficiency for his character and is, as the rest of his characterization, unpredictable, surprising yet fated.
The playwright has crafted all the supporting characterizations to offset McGowan and place him, and what he is and represents, “on high.” Though we are in a different time and a different country, it brings to mind current geopolitical events and the youth who have been given a sense of place, belonging, worth, and identity as they embrace the tenets of political violence to justify their own inner darkness. This is a fated choice for some, given all the elements that combine to steer young men and women along a path that ultimately leads to oblivion of self and soul.
It is not a choice for others, for whom violence is never a path to redemption or healing. Instead, they choose a journey within to unearth terrific pain and tremendous emotional hurt, a violence of self, but with hope for eventual wholeness and health. The mystery of the different choices others make and McGowan’s choice and decision to embrace violence toward others is what makes The McGowan Trilogy, which runs through October 5, perplexing, stirring and unsettling. It is a fine play, not easily forgotten or dismissed in its currency, though the time period was three decades in the past.