The old expression that an Irish person can "hold a grudge like a tomahawk" holds alarmingly true in Kirsten Greenidge's smart, affecting new play, ironically titled "Luck Of The Irish."
A suspenseful production of the bittersweet drama opened Monday night at the Claire Tow Theater, as part of Lincoln Center's LCT3 series showcasing emerging talent.
Two sets of events occur 50 years apart, thoughtfully staged by Rebecca Taichman with ghostly overlapping of the timeshifting scenes. In the late 1950s, with racism still prevalent in many American neighborhoods, an Irish-American couple in financial difficulties accepts money to purchase a large home in an all-white Boston suburb on secret behalf of a well-off, highly educated African-American doctor and his wife.
Fifty years later, the elderly Irish wife astounds the recently deceased black couple's grandchildren by claiming the house is really hers and they need to move out. The rest of the play tautly unravels the mystery of the missing house deed, but the drama is as much about belonging and ambition as it is about racism, poverty and envy.
There is humor and ease in the modern era, because Greenidge, who also wrote the edgy urban comedy "Milk Like Sugar," writes the way real people talk. Sentences run on or trail off, or both, and slang flows naturally. Greenidge also easily incorporates the undercurrents and stiff social conventions of the 1950s.
Marsha Stephanie Blake is feisty and emotional as Hannah, who recently moved into the house with her husband and hyperactive 10-year-old son to care for her dying grandmother. Incredibly, they are still the only black family in the area, and Blake gives a nuanced portrayal of an anxious mother increasingly stressed out by the home ownership issue and her son's social problems at his all-white school.
Amanda Quaid skillfully plays the resentful young 1950s Irish housewife, Patty Ann Donovan, her face often pursed-up with displeasure like she's sucking on a lemon. Jealously, Patty Ann holds onto the Taylors' deed as ransom for more money, even though the Taylors paid for the house and gave her husband a big fee besides. Quaid's tart Boston-Irish accent reflects Patty Ann's flinty personality, as she snaps out complaints and often bigoted, remarks to her henpecked husband.
Flighty young Joe Donovan, who fathered six children but doesn't hold down a regular job, is imbued with guilt and sensitivity by Dashiell Eaves. The elderly, 21st-century Donovans are expertly portrayed by Robert Hogan (wearing a long-beaten-down air) and, in a late appearance, Jenny O'Hara (credibly emanating a lifetime of outrage.)
Eisa Davis seems lit from within as Lucy, the outwardly serene wife of doctor Rex Taylor. Victor Williams exudes confidence and capability as her loving, hard-working husband.
Back in the present day, Frank Harts is down-to-earth as Hannah's engineer husband, Rich. When not bucking up Hannah with common sense, he's hollering comedic advice to his never-seen son, like, "We're men, son. We don't call Mommy except in our sleep." Hannah's at odds with her younger sister Nessa, too, (Carra Patterson, sweetly disgruntled) and the sisters argue emotionally about keeping or selling the house.
Taichman smoothly stages most of the play on a field of artificial grass that serves as the Taylors' large, idyllic back yard. Other locations are smartly delineated by Mimi Lien's set design, including an airy, acrylic rendition of the exterior of the Taylors' house. In sharp contrast is the dark, steamy kitchen where Patty Ann does other people's laundry and nurses her misguided resentments.
Although the elderly Joe speaks wistfully of "the winds of change", it's clear those winds and the alleged "luck" of the Irish both bypassed his bitter wife long ago.