Quietly, Owen McCafferty’s profound and understated work directed by Jimmy Fay is about reconciliation and redemption. The play is set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, some years after the Good Friday Peace Agreement between the IRA and the Ulster Loyalists-the protestant paramilitary factions of the Orange Order. By degrees, the playwright unveils the situation and moves us toward an understanding of an event that occurred during The Troubles in 1974, when families and youth were swept up in the hatred and violence spawned by disparate political groups in Northern Ireland. At the time of The Troubles, the warring Irishmen’s fury and disaffection from each other escalated to encompass the deaths of over 3500 individuals.
The play opens in an Irish pub run by Robert, a Polish immigrant (a fine performance by Robert Zawadzki), who swaps insults and jokes with patron Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane is grizzly, hard-edged, yet heart-felt in a sterling performance ), as they watch a World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and Poland and wait for another individual who Jimmy is scheduled to meet. The playwright intimates major themes during their conversation which he develops discretely as the play progresses. One concerns the recklessness and irresponsibility of youth and the cultural resentment which erupts into violence and hatred against outsiders and immigrants. Another concerns the suppression of emotional pain that individuals carry within, pain which impairs their ability to enjoy and accept their lives and the presence of others with good will.
McCafferty establishes the conflict abruptly when Ian (Declan Conlon is appropriately subdued, resigned, and humble), enters the pub and Jimmy who has been waiting for him to arrive, greets him with a punch in the face. It is a jarring moment and what follows is the slow unraveling of why Ian actually expects more than to be smashed in the jaw by Jimmy. Both are Irishmen who come from antithetical backgrounds; Jimmy is from the side of the Catholic “Finians.” Ian is a protestant who honors the Orange Order and everything it represents. Though the two men do not know each other intimately, they know of each other and they are meeting to confront that which happened on a particular evening in 1974 during the World Cup matches, in the same bar in front of an older style television where six men sat serenely watching the match but never had the opportunity to enjoy its finish.
It was then that teenager Ian, adhering to his community’s mores and folkways, altered Jimmy’s life to an extent that Jimmy didn’t realize until much later, after he gained wisdom and had a family of his own. It was then that Ian suffered the randomness of violence enacted upon his own life as others manipulated and crudely rewarded him in a way that was indeed more insulting and crass than a punch in the jaw. It was then that the two men would be irrevocably drawn to one another in a meeting over 30 years later to grapple with the senseless violence that youth is so ready to engage in and so abysmally shocked at when its repercussions fall fast and furious afterward.
In this haunting play McCafferty distills today’s themes that appear ever present and global about hatred, ongoing revenge, and youthful violence. We cannot help but think of current acts of terrorism as we listen to these Irishmen’s stories of the events surrounding that fateful night when Jimmy decided not to accompany his father to the pub and Ian became part of a gang of hooligans brainwashed by political cant, to turn into a haphazard, puppet-like instrument of terror, a result which backfires on him and changes his life.
As Jimmy and Ian discuss their lives and identities, we understand the power of forgiveness if it first allows for individuals to recognize the impact of their harmful acts on others and then allows them to confront one another and become reconciled in peace. However, McCafferty indicates that maybe the reconciliation cannot be forced. It might be willingly offered and willingly accepted away from the sham of public spotlight, fanfare and grandstanding for it to be meaningful. Perhaps it should be done on a personal level, quietly and freely with no political strings attached.
Such grace committed “quietly” takes great courage. When Ian bestows the opportunity on Jimmy to have a meet up with him, Ian risks the possibility that Jimmy will follow in the folkways of the past and take revenge on Ian. The fact that Ian has the courage to confront Jimmy “come what may,” with humility, indicates his great desire to expiate for his youthful insanity and commission of cultural violence which had become entrenched in the social fabric, much to the horror of some in the community.
When Ian offers to make amends, however late, and, as Jimmy suggests, insignificantly, he does so as an adult aware that he was incapable of this at sixteen because of brash ignorance and the undue influence of bellicose and unforgiving “adults.” But he is capable of an apology now in his 50s. It is heartfelt and real. Likewise, Jimmy wouldn’t have tolerated receiving any apology as a teenager. Yet after listening to Ian’s story of that night and its aftermath, he realizes the wisdom of receiving what Ian can give now. Both have embraced wisdom. They have evolved to another mental and emotional state that has taken them far from violence and the willing abuse of others. They could only come to this realization having suffered through the grim act of hatred in 1974 to finally confront it over thirty years later with each other.
The day Ian and Jimmy meet is not unlike the day of violence in 1974, though the expiation of pain for both men drives them forward on the road to redemption and peace. Yet, McCafferty intimates by the play’s conclusion that violence is ever present, symbolized when teenagers attack the pub leveling ethnic slurs at Robert. For despite personal reconciliations and redemptions which occur “quietly” throughout Northern Ireland as peace and forgiveness is granted in various circles, subterranean violence and unrest still fester. It is easily stirred up among the youth by others through hot, irresponsible, political rhetoric. Oftentimes, as the play reveals, teenagers are ready targets of political power players. Often, teens do not regard the significance of their actions; they employ violence as an afterthought and whim, unaware of its impact.
The folkways of aggression, anger, and hatred in cultures which experience war, violence, and abuse are not easily overthrown. Even now, there are events that occur in Northern Ireland related to political groups as a throwback to The Troubles. Additional people have been killed in acts of violence after 1998.
One of the playwright’s key themes suggests that clannish behavior to embrace war on “the other,” whomever “the other” may be at the moment, is the convenient tactic for erst-while leaders to rally groups and obtain power. How might sub rosa aggressive impulses never be targeted by such power players? McCafferty has no answers. Perhaps peace may flourish only in the aftermath when wisdom and age take over and there is individual, personal understanding. Perhaps it can occur on a one to one level, if individuals are willing to come together and discuss the present through the lens of the past; perhaps then, meaningful reconciliation can be achieved.
Certainly, the play is intriguing for McCafferty shows how the spurs of war and hatred are dug into youthful flesh to drive them toward ends that they perhaps would not choose if the cultural circumstances were different. And indeed, the question remains: if Ian had publicly apologized for his actions to Jimmy, would that have made an even greater impact? Or is it more powerful and meaningful that this occurs on a personal, intimate level?
The production’s theatrical elements (staging, lighting, sound, costume design, etc.), adhere beautifully. The talented director and cast create a provocative, thought-provoking show. The Irish Repertory Theatre in association with The Public Theater is presenting The Abbey Theatre’s Quietly. You can see it at The Irish Rep until September 11th.