'Making History' at Irish Heritage: The illusions of the past

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(Left to right:) Kevin Rodden as Hugh O’Donnell and Ethan Lipkin as Hugh O’Neill in the Irish Heritage production of Brian Friel’s “Making History” at Plays & Players Theatre.

If you need a break from the hot-button topics assaulting us from various contemporary stages, the Irish Heritage production of the little-known Brian Friel play Making History, at Plays & Players Theatre through June 10, seems to offer one.

It’s a history play. Ah, yes, we sigh contentedly, it will be about people and their troubles long, long ago.  But, despite the reassuring stage direction in Act 1, “Late August in 1591,” this play turns out to be as relevant as though the date were yesterday’s. Seeing it on Memorial Day weekend was especially pointed.

The topics are those of history: war heroes, politics, religion, a divided country, patriotism, tribalism.  But despite any connections to our world we might make while watching Irish Heritage Theatre’s fine and absorbing production, this play, by the great Irish master Friel, is about real events in 16th-century Ireland.

Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, was one of those larger-than-life figures history seems to specialize in: commanding, brilliant, self-indulgent, womanizing. Ethan Lipkin’s height and girth add power to his performance as he strides through the play. He reveals to his loyal and abused servant Harry (Bob Weick), and to his brash, loud, adventuring compatriot Hugh O’Donnell (Kevin Rodden), and to the Archbishop of Ireland, Peter Lombard (John Cannon), that he has just married a third wife, Mabel (Stephanie Iozzia), who is not only young and Protestant but also the daughter of the enemy, the “Butcher Bagenal.”

Peggy Mecham directs with a steady hand, and a patient hand, as Friel makes us wait until Act 2 to learn the outcome of all the strategizing and battling: the disastrous defeat known as “The Flight of the Earls” as Spain betrays Ireland and signs an agreement with Queen Elizabeth.

But, it will turn out, Friel’s real interest is less in matters military than in matters literary.  The archbishop is writing a history of the times, the end of “six hundred and thirty continuous years of O’Neill hegemony,” and its importance to the Irish people. But, like Friel, the archbishop sees that “People think they want to know the ‘facts,’ but what they really want is a story.”  And so what we know as Irish history, 400 years after the events, is a story, shaped by an author; it creates a hero, erases the women, and creates a myth.

And so documented “history” turns out to be the final betrayal, and the “truth” – presented by the play on stage – eludes us once again.  The title, Making History, is cleverer than we realized.

Making History. Through June 10 at Irish Heritage Theatre at Plays & Players, 1714  Delancey St. Tickets $15-25. Information: 215-751-8495, irishheritagetheatre.org.

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