Irish Heritage Theatre honors its own father with Da, on stage at Plays & Players through March 23. Hugh Leonard’s 1978 Tony-winner for best play serves as a star vehicle for 81-year-old company founder John Cannon.
Even as he plays a ghost, Cannon seems vibrantly alive under Peggy Meacham’s energetic direction.
The title character shuffled off the mortal coil at some undetermined point in the past, leaving his adopted son Charlie (Daniel McGlaughlin) to return to his childhood home and deal with the detritus. A posh London playwright, Charlie must come to terms with a history he’s avoided – that of his family, his country, and his relationship with Da.
Though slightly dotty and dated, Leonard’s play smartly subverts expectations of Irish theater. It neither overdoses on blarney nor leaves its audience keening and moaning. Mostly, it finds a happy middle ground: tender and touching in some places, spectral and searching in others.
Da isn’t the only ghost haunting the set’s modest Dublin digs, rendered with pleasant shabbiness by Ian and Siobhan McCrane.
Charlie’s Ma appears in the sympathetic form of Mary Pat Walsh, who vacillates between prideful warmth and stern rapprochement. Youthful desire materializes in the person of Mary Tate, also known as the Yellow Peril, given vivacious life by Kelly Filios in Kassy Bradford’s delectable costumes.
Charlie even shares the stage with his former self, played by J. Oliver Donahue as a terminally unfulfilled youngster who envisions a world beyond his humble beginnings.
McGlaughlin and Donahue achieve something rare and wonderful: They actually seem like the same person separated by a few decades and an ocean of lived experience. Young Charlie’s teenage insouciance calcifies into his adult self’s hard-edged worldview, a total rejection of Da’s easygoing spirit.
Leonard smartly contrasts the Irish generation who grew up in the swell of nationalist fervor with those who fled to a calmer life “across the pond,” without passing judgment on either choice. Charlie and Da rarely see eye to eye, but their bond transcends petty grievances.
Like many Irish plays from O’Casey to McDonagh, Da wears out its welcome ever so slightly as it ambles toward a neatly telegraphed resolution, and some of Leonard’s jokes don’t stand the test of time.
Yet Irish Heritage Theatre’s superb company communicates such a level of unforced charm that any small expanse of dead weight can be forgiven. You will certainly find your face fixed in a broad smile whenever Cannon takes center stage.
“I love you, Da,” Charlie tells his father to defuse a tense interaction.
“Certainly you love me,” Da replies. “Why wouldn’t ya?”
Irish Heritage Theatre’s “Da”