Lighthousekeeping brings Scotland past and present to the Chicago stage
Life amongst the Scots
06/15/2011 10:00 PM
Gabriel Byrne visited New York Public Radio’s “The Leonard Lopate Show” recently to discuss his latest project. No, the actor best known for starring roles in Miller’s Crossing, The Usual Suspects, In Treatment and scores of other productions wasn’t plugging a new show opening, as is the case with many celebrity appearances. The Dublin-born actor was recently appointed Ireland’s first cultural ambassador, and he was on Lopate’s show to discuss an incredible new film exhibition that he curated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“Revisiting The Quiet Man” presented Ireland through Irish eyes, with films directed by its native directors (save for John Ford, who directed the exhibit’s namesake). Besides being an impressive slice of film history, the exhibit strove to showcase work removed from many of the cultural stereotypes attached to the Irish over the past century. No leprechauns tempting with pots of gold here.
A similar premise infuses Lighthousekeeping, a new play currently being staged by New Leaf Theater at the DCA Theater’s Storefront Theater downtown. Adapted by local playwright Georgette Kelly from the novel by acclaimed British author Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping presents a rich vision of Scotland that’s a far cry from popular perceptions of the country and its people perpetuated by brash Groundskeeper Willie of “The Simpsons,” Austin Powers’ hungry Fat Bastard and even the junked-out Edinburgh misfits in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. And there’s nary a Loch Ness Monster poking its head from mysterious depths. No gratuitous kilts, either.
The play centers on Silver, a young woman sent as a child to live with a blind lighthouse keeper named Pew after her mother’s death. From atop the illuminated, isolated perch overlooking Cape Wrath, Scotland, Pew spins yarns to the entranced girl about the tragic history of the lighthouse and those associated with it over the centuries, in particular a troubled minister whose actions destroys the lives of those around him. It’s a tale of forbidden love, abuse, shame, regret, science and faith, complete with appearances by Charles Darwin and Robert Louis Stevenson, all played out on a wonderfully designed and lit multi-level set.
When technology strikes the lighthouse, mechanizing it and making Pew’s job obsolete, Silver, now headstrong and grown, finds herself thrust from her home. Armed with Pew’s stories, she sets out to begin a new life in modern Scotland, where trouble — and love — waits.
The first act centers on Silver’s life with Pew, with an adult Silver (a perfect Tien Doman) narrating her youth and even interacting with her younger self (played by an energetic Caroline Phillips). As the blind man tells his stories, they manifest in physical form as Lighthousekeeping’s cast takes over the action. Though fascinating, these flashbacks tend to drag — the fault of uneven, sometimes wooden supporting performances and an in-the-round staging that often muffles dialogue and spotty Scottish brogues.
Silver’s act two exploits erase any of Lighthousekeeping’s earlier deficits, though. As she struggles to adapt to an unknown world, she encounters only hardship and indifference — as well as brushes with the law. Her travails are riveting. Despite the calamities, she never loses her innocence and optimism. It’s a cliché trope, but it works. Like the lighthouse, Silver is a beacon of hope who proves that life’s way can be found, despite the odds.