It is difficult to write a memory play, complete with ghosts and younger selves, without a shred of sentimentality. Yet that is exactly what Hugh Leonard achieved with his 1978 Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics’ Circle and Tony-award winning “Da,” presented in a beautiful revival by the Irish Repertory Theatre at the DR2 Theatre right off Union Square in Manhattan.
Charlie (Ciaran O’Reilly), a middle-aged writer who has lived in London for many years, comes back to Dalkey, a suburb of Dublin, for his adopted father’s funeral. Hoping to put the memory of his Da behind him, instead he finds his childhood home (a well-designed mixture of the quaint and the shabby, by James Morgan) filled with the ghosts of his parents, his first mentor, the exacting Drumm (Sean Gormley, very fine), and various incarnations of his younger self.
“Da” could have been a tidy play where Charlie comes to terms with his past and moves on. But that would have been both typical and too easy. Instead “Da” is uncomfortable, in the same way Charlie feels with his father. As played by Paul O’Brien, his Da is infuriating, impossible and likeable, all at the same time. Seen in flashbacks, he refuses to take anything from Charlie, including money sent from London, is too good-natured (“a sheep” accuses Charlie the younger, played by Adam Petherbridge) and is literally and figuratively an overpowering presence. Charlie will never be able to pay him back nor stop feeling indebted; but unlike his adopted mother (Fiana Toibin), Da never made himself out to be a savior. Da is a man of the earth; it is no accident he was a gardener for 54 years, and an underappreciated one at that.
It amuses me that “Da” is described, in terms of genre, as a comedy. It is not, though it does have its funny moments, many of them supplied by John Keating’s hilarious Oliver, Charlie’s old friend and general nuisance. The ensemble of actors, down to the smaller but not insignificant roles of “The Yellow Peril” (Nicola Murphy) and Mrs. Prynne (Kristin Griffith), is terrific.
But mainly, “Da” will not comfort those who believe that the past belongs firmly in the past. In Charlie’s case, and for most of us, the past is not something we will ever be able to escape, no matter how hard we try.