StageSceneLA: Remembrance is “theater at its best”

His Protestant son was murdered by an IRA hit squad in the driveway of his father’s Belfast home. Her Catholic son was tortured, then shot to death by a vigilante Protestant street gang. Their late-in-life romance is at the heart of Graham Reid’s powerful 1987 drama Remembrance, not only one of the finest plays to be part of a Theatre 40 season, but quite possibly the best overall production I have seen at Beverly Hills’ premier 99-seat theater.

Bert Andrews (Mik Scriba) and Theresa Donaghy (Diana Angelina) met while caring for the graves of his Sam and her Peter, and now, despite the ancient grudges that have split their two communities in two, the widowed Belfasters find themselves falling in love, news unlikely to please either his police officer son Victor and her two adult daughters, Deirdre and Joan.

Victor (Johnny O’Callaghan), who’s moved back in with his father following his separation from Jenny (Elizabeth Lande), spends his days and nights boozing, baiting Bert, shagging, and driving his long-suffering “Da” to distraction. Though he longs for a reconciliation with Jenny, Victor is contemplating a move to South Africa where “they don’t care if you’re Protestant or Catholic, just whether you’re black,” precisely the place for a cop with a penchant for violence.

Over on the Catholic side of town, Theresa has her hands full with her own grown-up children.

There’s elder daughter Deirdre (Christine Joëlle), whose IRA gunman husband is serving a life sentence, leaving her to raise their three kids on her own, and neither law or religion allowing her the escape of divorce, or even a love affair so long as her spouse remains alive.

As for Joan (Alice Cutler), Theresa’s terminally single younger daughter longs for anything that will make her lonely life bearable, her anger and bitterness finding its target in any Protestant who might cross her path, and more particularly in the Protestant widower who has the gall to court her mother.

With children like these, is there any way two 60-somethings can possibly make a go at love the second time around?

Remembrance runs a good two hours and forty-five minutes, but you’d never know it, so rivetingly does it hold you in its grasp from start to finish, brilliantly directed by Tim Byron Owen and performed by one of the finest ensembles I’ve seen on a Theatre 40 stage.

It helps that playwright Reid has created a cast of fully three-dimensional characters, many of whom surprise us with unexpected bursts of warmth or rage or humanity. Reid takes no sides in Remembrance, nor does he allow any of his dramatis personae to be black-and-white villain or hero. And humor abounds, it being as good a weapon as any to combat decades if not centuries of enmity. (When Joan asks Bert, “Can you and my mother really be in love after such a short time?,” Bert replies with a wink, “We’ve only got a short time. That helps the process.”)

Scriba and Angelina couldn’t be more marvelous as two sexagenarians discovering that, as the song would have it, “Love is lovelier the second time around, just as wonderful with both feet on the ground.” Both seasoned actors give performances of subtlety, grit, and grace, and when was the last time that you saw actors in their sixties getting to “snog” onstage?

Playwright Reid and director Owen give younger cast members ample opportunity to strut their dramatic stuff as their characters deal with envy, anger, resentment, despair, longing, guilt, and grief.

As Victor, a sensational O’Callaghan is a boiling cauldron of rage beneath which lies the wounded heart of a son who has felt unloved and under-appreciated. A richly-layered Lande shines as Victor’s estranged wife Jenny, whose continued presence as Bert’s volunteer housekeeper is salt in Victor’s many wounds. Cutler is terrific too as a still young “old maid” who takes out her romantic and sexual frustrations on her Ma, all the while harboring a guilty secret that tears at her heart.

Perhaps best of all is the statuesque Joëlle, doing revelatory work as a young woman you wouldn’t want to tangle with in a dark alley at night. (“I picked a fight with that whore next door to me last night … just to get somebody to shout at … and it cost her two teeth.”) A heady combination of the butch and the beautiful, Joëlle’s powerhouse performance may be her best ever, and never more so than in Remembrance’s most gut-wrenching scene, a knock-down-drag-out between Joëlle and Angelina that will leave you breathless.

Dialect coach/Belfast native Rick Crawford (who will assume the role of Victor for the final eight performances) has insured that Remembrance’s American contingent of actors sound as authentically Northern Irish as his fellow countryman O’Callaghan.

Scenic designer Jeff G. Rack divides Theatre 40’s wide stage in three, with the Andrews house on the left, the Donaghy house on the right, and the Belfast Cemetery in the middle, barbed wire topping the upstage walls and reminding us of the war zone these two families call home. Ric Zimmerman’s lighting design is one of his best, focusing attention, raising dramatic stakes, and sometimes just being downright beautiful. Bill Froggatt’s expert sound design links swift scene changes with mood-and-place-setting Irish tunes, and provides several authentic effects. Michèle Young’s costumes are not only perfect choices for each character and for the time frame they live in (the height of “The Troubles” that kept Northern Ireland at war for so many years) but also beautifully color-coordinated to match the browns and greens of Rack’s set.

Remembrance is produced by David Hunt Stafford. Damien Kerr is assistant director. Michael Frank is stage manager.

Prudish theatergoers are forewarned that Remembrance’s younger characters speak in salty terms not allowed on network TV. At the same time, Theatre 40 is owed a debt of gratitude for taking on the challenges of a play as raw and gritty as Remembrance can be at times.

Remembrance is not only Theatre 40 at its best and L.A. theater at its best. It is purely, simply, theater at its best.