Although it's been more than a decade since the first IRA cease-fire, Stuart Carolan's Defender of the Faith returns to the Northern Ireland of the mid-1980s for an earthy, masculine story about traitors and a family being torn apart by suspicion and lies. Unlike Martin McDonagh's black comedies, which expose the absurdity of the Irish predicament, Carolan keeps things cold and calculated, with only a few moments of humor to alleviate the stress of living under constant threat. The characters present a fascinating study of a family in the absence of a female presence, thanks to Ciarรกn O'Reilly's subtle direction and the masterful performances of Luke Kirby as Thomas and Anto Nolan as his father, Joe.
Thomas' brother Shamey killed himself a year ago and his mother is in "the nut house," which leaves the men to fend for themselves in a struggle of wills. The conflict centers on a "tout," or traitor, in their midst, until everyone's fingered as the culprit, including Barney (a delightfully sweet Peter Rogan). The suspense plays out surprisingly well until eventually someone is punished. Dramas depicting political struggles and the IRA are nothing new, but Carolan's play is more concerned with the bond that holds men together and how tenuous blood ties can be when men feel their loyalties tested.
Kirby also has a few wonderful moments with child actor Matt Ball as Danny. It's never quite clear what their actual familial relationship is, but Danny functions well as a younger brother to Thomas. The play's final sequence is a bit of a letdown after the intense conflicts depicted, but Ball has a remarkable facility for teasing out idiosyncrasies from a small part, making the final moment he shares with Kirby a poignant salve for Thomas' wounds.
Presented by and at the Irish Repertory Theatre,
132 W. 22nd St., NYC.
March 8-April 29. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., and Sun., 3 p.m.
Casting by Laura Maxwell-Scott.