Saturday, September 6, 2008

Defender of the Faith, Bang & Clatter/Akron


Tattletale, snitch, squealer, stoolie, rat. Other than whistleblower, there aren’t many positive words for somebody who passes along incriminating information about others. And nowhere was the hatred of informants more visceral and violent than in Ireland during the “Troubles.”

The paranoia and fear of that time is central to the action in Defender of the Faith, a determinedly downbeat play by Stuart Carolan now at the Bang and Clatter Theatre Company’s Akron venue. Structured like a verbal boxing match, the bulk of the show pops with the energy of piston-sharp jabs thrown and parried. And even though the last scene takes a roundhouse swing and misses, the overall pummeling might leave a mark on your heart.

Set in 1986 in a tiny dairy farm near the border of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a family committed to the cause of the Irish Republican Army is tangled up in its own problems. Patriarch Joe has a volatile temper that is most often directed at his twenty-something son Thomas and ten-year-old Danny (Adam Hass-Hill). The only reason another brother, Seamie, avoids abuse is that he is dead, apparently from an accidental drowning witnessed from afar by Joe.

Using every possible declension of the words fuck and cunt, plus a couple others not even invented yet, each of the family members attacks the others relentlessly. It’s like Ozzie and Harriet if everyone was cranked up on PCP, horse steroids and crystal meth (with mom absent, since she’s been locked away in “a house for nutters”). Another target of Joe’s scorn is his dim-witted hired man Barney, an agreeable fellow who quickly defers to Joe at every opportunity.

But this barely functional family dynamic changes when JJ, an IRA cleaner, arrives to ferret out a stool pigeon in the household. Then, as the real cause of Seamies’s death is called into question and a snitch is identified, the tension ratchets up.

The B&C production benefits from several compelling performances. Justin Tatum speaks with a believable brogue as Thomas and brings a piercing clarity to a young man trapped helplessly in familial and nationalistic torments. And he is almost matched in intensity by D. Michael Franks as his pop, portraying a man whose only coping mechanisms are emotional abuse and sometimes physical assault.

But the most intriguing performance is turned in by Jim Viront as the semi-addled Barney. Viront is masterful at conveying this schlub’s damaged mental state, showing his comprehension click in and then flicker away in almost the same moment. He has an absorbing scene with Thomas when they’re cleaning the parts of a milking machine and Barney relates, with helpless foreboding, the IRA’s brutal treatment of informers.

In the role of JJ, Rollin McNamara Michael is a near miss. Sounding more like a resident of Dublin, Ohio than Dublin, Ireland, he finds the spooky, calm center of his character but seems to float a bit too far above the proceedings. This disengagement makes his more aggressive, take-charge gestures later in the play feel slightly out of place and therefore less terrifying than they should be.

Director Stephen Skiles clearly knows what this play is about—the dripping infection of hate that eventually bloats a person, a family, or a country with toxins—and he makes the audience feel that oozing ache.

Defender of the Faith
Through August 30
Bang and Clatter Theatre/Akron
Sandefur Theatre in Guzzetta Hall
157 University Avenue, Akron

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