From Solas Nua, Scintillating Belfast 'Scenes'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 21, 2007

It isn't every day that a small local theater company has the nerve to try to tell a gritty, multifaceted story by maneuvering 21 actors around a tiny stage. And it's rarer still for an entire teeming world to be evoked as superbly as the crew at Solas Nua does with Owen McCafferty's Belfast chronicle "Scenes From the Big Picture."

With this absorbing, exquisitely acted production, two-year-old Solas Nua affirms its status as the most vital new troupe in town. The company, whose name is Gaelic for "new light," has found in its area of specialty -- contemporary Irish drama -- a wonderful, fertile focus. The bracingly original perspectives of Dublin playwrights such as Mark O'Rowe and Enda Walsh have added a level of fresh inventiveness to the offerings on the city's smaller stages.

McCafferty's "Scenes From the Big Picture" is another fascinating entry. The play, originally produced at the Royal National Theatre in London, is a departure for Solas Nua in that it is rooted in naturalism; its previous offerings, like Walsh's "Bedbound" and "The Small Things," have tended to be more challenging, language-driven works.

"Scenes From the Big Picture" is, on the other hand, an attempt to portray in realistic fashion life in a city whose ordinary struggles had long been overshadowed by one big set of Troubles. Borrowing equally from Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," James Joyce's "Dubliners" and the TV series "EastEnders" -- a long-running British serial set in London's working-class East End -- "Scenes From the Big Picture" splices together the bittersweet stories of a clutch of average Belfast residents on a day of little epiphanies.

Stories like these could unfold on any tough patch of ground anywhere: a husband cheating on a wife desperate to bear children; a pair of estranged brothers battling on the day of their father's funeral; an old shopkeeper trying to soldier on in a tumbledown neighborhood. The pranks of wayward teenagers and the brutality of drug dealers cast "Scenes" in darker urban shades. And McCafferty gives us a whiff of the Belfast of the evening news, in the circumstances of a grieving couple waiting to see if the police locate the body of their long-missing murdered son.

Is the boy a victim of random violence or the more targeted kind, for which the city was once notorious? An audience is never sure, and that is in keeping with the point of the evening. No one is ever described in present-day "Scenes" as being Catholic or Protestant, a blurring of identity that can almost be disorienting for any outsider who has followed the events in Northern Ireland over the last few decades and has come to expect everything to be defined in religious terms.

What the play is about, in a sense, is the normalcy of sadness and stress and recrimination, the idea that pain and suffering need not be grounded in extreme forms of hatred and violence. Even in Belfast, such feelings can spring out of the routine of the everyday.

McCafferty's strength is akin to that of a short story writer, and though some of the stories of "Scenes" twist in interesting ways -- the squabbling brothers, for instance, uncover a disturbing facet of their father's life while digging in his garden plot -- some others unravel in predictably soapy ways. This is of little concern. The dramatist's characters pulsate with authenticity, a quality underlined in director Des Kennedy's superlative staging.

Working in a basic black-box space, the Callan Theatre on the campus of Catholic University, Kennedy brings out the absolute best in an eclectic cast of local actors. It is almost unfair to single out anyone, because the production bats 21 for 21 -- no one comes close to striking out. Many of the actors are recognizable from work on other stages around town. Few of them, however, have been used to better advantage, which tells you something about the splendid touch of Kennedy, who has worked extensively in Britain and Ireland.

From the senior citizens (Don Kenefick as shopkeeper Sammy; Bryan Cassidy as lonely Frank) to the teenagers (Paloma Ellis as flirty Maggie; Joe Baker as malevolent Cooper), there is an appealing genuineness, in accent as well as affect. Kennedy places them all on a bare stage with props so rudimentary they look like holdovers from the earliest rehearsals. Designer Robbie Hayes adds a pair of primitive metal doorways, from which hang strips of yellow plastic. As if to comment on the director's style, the doors are engagingly transparent.

The sense of a finely tuned ensemble extends even to the frequent scene transitions; one of the blessings of "Scenes" is that it moves. If one were forced to identify just a few of the sterling actors, the standouts would include Nanna Ingvarsson as an office clerk waiting by the phone for news of her missing son; John C. Bailey as a hard-drinking workingman with a soft spot for a wild child; and Madeleine Burke as a childless housewife saddled with a faithless husband.

Jason McCool and Stephanie Roswell impressively complete this tale of betrayal, as the husband and the woman with whom he cheats. Playing a dealer and his addict girlfriend, Patrick Bussink and Madeline Carr incisively get at the rotten core of the drug trade. And as those initially hostile brothers, Eric Messner and Joe Isenberg rub each other wrong in all the right ways.

I could go on. Or better yet: You should just go.

Scenes From the Big Picture, by Owen McCafferty. Directed by Des Kennedy. Set, Robbie Hayes; lighting, Marianne Meadows; sound, Chris Pifer; costumes, Lynly Saunders; fight choreography, Chris Niebling. With Brian Hemmingsen, John Brennan, Declan Cashman, Ellie Nicoll, John Tweel, Daniel Siefring, Jon Reynolds, Kevin O'Reilly. About 2 hours 50 minutes. Through June 24 at Callan Theatre, Catholic University, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit

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