DA -- In the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center through May 10.
Many people share the heritage of a heartbreakingly close Irish family life, financially impoverished but emotionally rich.
These people are called theater-goers.
Generations of talented Irish playwrights examining their roots have managed to graft them into the rest of us. So when the curtain goes up on one of those fussy hovels with a bent metal teapot in the place of honor, as it does for Hugh Leonard's "Da" at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, the regulars in the audience think they know what to expect:
Though the characters are all poor and uneducated, they will speak in startling images and poetic rhythms that roll up to nobility and then fall back into humorous irony.
The forces of Religion and Sex will battle it out for the souls of the major characters, while Patriotism and Alcoholism fight over the minor ones. There will be a pivotal scene in which the young hero, who has outgrown the clothrs he's wearing, has satisified his consuming lust for the village slut and is now consumed with remorse and revulsion towards his own body.
Stoutness of heart, exemplified by the old matriarch, will carry the family through terrible adversity -- including watching a member of the family fall through the doorway, shot, and drop dead on the floor -- to a triumph of magnificently irrational hope.
The literary son, having fought all his life against the narrowness of the older generation's beliefs, will realize in maturity that there was something beautiful about them, and that in any case, he will never fully escape ths legacy.
Olney Theater does at least one of these plays a season. Because they tend to be well written and acted, the familiar sight of that battered teapot evokes pleasant anticipation. But for those who missed the American premiere of "Da" at Olney in 1973, or its later prize-collecting run on Broadway, there are going to be some surprises:
The characters speak in cliches, uttering banal thoughts. Da himself is accurately described as never once having had a hope or a dream or having said a half-wise thing. He's a gardener, but has no mystical connection to his flowers, let alone to people. "There're no shallows to which you won't sink, are there?" his son asks.
Nobody drinks too much, the priest never visits, politics is irrelevant even though World War II happens to be going on, and the young man loses interest in seducing the villiage slut when he gets interrupted and goes off to marry a nice girl and live happily ever after.
The family's gamut of moods ranges from resignation to exasperaton, and the matriarch, for all her efforts at nagging, finally dies of old age without having left much of an impression on anyone.
The literary son, fully realizing what a bore his old Da is, to say nothing of being so dumb as to burn his hand on the hot teapot every time he touches it, nevertheless carries the memory of Da around like a stupid jingle that lodges itself in the head and won't budge.
Actually, this makes an amusing play about ordinariness and how someone of blameless character but limited faculities can claim the affections of a superior person just through cheerful familiarity. Barnard Hughes' Da is so cleverly acted as to make the difficulty of dismissing him, when he is dead in addition to being dim, understandable.
But the Irish playwrights, including Leonard himself in previous work, have so accustomed us to a different mythology that it takes a while before a devoted theater-goer can dimly perceive this.