There’s powerful stuff of a moral and ethical nature emanating from the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre of the Irish Repertory Theatre, in the world premier two-hander “Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Robin Glendinning.
Based on true events and a true relationship, the play is set in a jail cell (appropriately claustrophobic, rendered by Edward Morris, with eerie lighting by Matthew McCarthy) in Italy, 1948. Imprisoned for planning and carrying out the Ardeatine Caves Massacre, where 335 people were murdered in retaliation for the deaths of 33 German soldiers by the Italian resistance, is the haughty, arrogant Herbert Kappler ( Haskell King, in a brilliant Irish Repertory debut). Trying to extract answers from questions about his treatment is the other man in the cell, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty (Sean Gormley, a regular onstage at the Irish Repertory Theatre and superb here). But is that really why he came to see Kappler? And who sent him? Kappler isn’t interested in answering questions, as he suspects the Monsignor is a “fisher of men” and as an atheist, has no interest in being converted. Their back and forth initially seems antagonistic, until you realize these two men have a lot in common. They were both in uniform but on opposing sides; and both answer to a higher power. During the war, the Monsignor enlisted other priests, nuns and lay people to help over 6500 people escape Nazi capture. They knew of one another, and on one occasion, O’Flaherty, in disguise as a coal man, bested him. Kappler says, “Yes, yes we played a deadly game against each other in 43 and 44 but don’t let us fool ourselves that those days were not the most exciting and exhilarating in our lives.” He suggests the Monsignor is “bored” and that he is “…A man of action imprisoned by spending all his days annulling marriages for the convenience of the rich and powerful.” Furious, the Monsignor prepares to leave while boasting to Kappler he is going to become a Bishop and will be sent to Africa. Before he walks out the cell door, he says to Kappler, “…despite your own part in those crimes in your mind you are still wearing that black uniform and you strut your arguments and your explanations and justifications and rationalisations for all that you did; oh how convenient it would be for you if we lived in a Godless universe where there is neither retribution or guilt.”
But suppose Kappler did accept his role in that horrible crime; suppose he “confessed” to the Monsignor every detail of that massacre of innocence in the cave – then what? Would the Monsignor then offer absolution? Comfort? According to his vows, that is what should naturally follow. But suppose the Monsignor has a crisis of faith? Suppose he cannot rise above what he has heard? Suppose instead he sits in judgement? Then both men would be in crisis: one of conscience, and one of faith.
This is a twisty, provocative, disturbing play – rightly so. Kent Paul’s taut direction sustains the tension between the two men until the very end. And in case you were wondering, in 1959, the Monsignor converted Kappler to Catholicism.