'Trad': A Father-and-Son Journey Through the Heart of Ireland

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 28, 2008

Two men. Long suffering. Riotous dialogue.

Irish play.

Mark Doherty takes all kinds of traditions for a spin in "Trad," a mock-epic quest for national identity being staged with economy and affinity by Solas Nua. Doherty is an actor who has done stand-up comedy, and both experiences show in the crisp patter that gives the 75-minute play its playfully aware, quizzically absurd tone.

The all-purpose setting in Linda Murray's confident miniaturist production is a sandy, desolate beach. (Irish drama, like the fabled Irish character, is practiced at getting by on scant resources.) An old man lies on an overturned boat, while another old man -- his son Thomas, it turns out -- checks to see whether he's dead.

Indomitable, the elder man rises and resumes the intimidating, legend-driven relationship he's foisted upon Thomas all his life. Ah, the feats of the Irish! Hardship comes with the territory; it's part of life's challenge, or at least of Irish lore, and Doherty pokes at this by giving the plucky father a peg leg and the son a missing arm.

When nothing's happening and much is made of it, the acting calls for bluster, which Chris Davenport, as the ancient Da, delivers with feisty (if heavily made up) eyes and stiff jabs of his fists. Da's effect on Thomas is as plain as the dazed look on Michael John Casey's face; with his mouth twisted and his eyes gone squinty, Casey consistently looks as if he's just been clubbed in the head and can't quite remember it.

Together the characters embark on a journey that not only seems improbable (as even they divine at times), but at times scales monumental heights of stupidity. Could there be more of them about, another in the endangered line of succession? The possibility is enough to set them hiking across the countryside, which is given dimension in the Flashpoint's small Mead Theatre Lab as the actors trek in silhouette behind a scrim.

Murray's production gains atmosphere courtesy of occasional moonlight (which presides over a lovely unexpected dance) and live incidental music composed and performed by guitarist Johnathan Watkins. Stephanie Roswell adds percussion, and steps in to play various figures encountered by Da and Thomas.

None of the actors, dressed in heavy tweeds by costume designer Lynly Saunders, are convincingly old, which weakens the effect a little bit. But the writing is very bright, from the opening vaudeville rhythms and gags to sweeping speeches that not only take in swaths of attitudes and recent Irish progress but also end up being the funniest bits in the play.

For "Trad" charts an intriguing progress as Da and Thomas blunder on. Doherty toys with archetypes and traditions not merely for sport (though there is plenty of that), but also with a ripple of intellectual curiosity that hasn't always been felt in some of the sensation-happy slugfests that have come out of Ireland in recent years. Doherty entertains adroitly, but in place of unfocused anger, zingy nihilism or Hollywood cynicism, "Trad" has a bit of warmth that unabashedly draws the audience in.

Trad, by Mark Doherty. Directed by Linda Murray. Set design, Dan Brick; lighting design, Marianne Meadows; musical adviser, Chris Pifer. Through Feb. 17 at Flashpoint's Mead Theatre Lab, 916 G St. NW. Call 1-800-494-TIXS or visit

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