When a theatrical production truly connects with an audience, the emotional experience can be indescribable. That was the case this past April when Boston's Tir Na Theatre Company presented Mark Doherty's poignant comedy "Trad" to great success at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Word of mouth was so strong and the reviews were so glowing that every ticket for the run was snapped up, leaving the box office to deal with one disappointed patron after another.
Carefully tended by director Carmel O'Reilly, the production starred Tir Na's Producing Artistic Director Colin Hamell, Billy Meleady, and Nancy E. Carroll. As a result of their original success, the director and all three actors will reunite to present "Trad" at Gloucester Stage Company for a two week run beginning September 2. The question now is: Can lightning strike twice? By all accounts, the chances are very good.
With a fiddle and a guitar providing soft accompaniment, the quirky tapestry of "Trad" centers on a 100 year old man (Hamell) and his feisty "Da" (Meleady). When the father bemoans the family line dying out, the unmarried and already ancient son reluctantly confesses that he fathered a child some 70 years before. And so the two old men (one with only one leg and the other with only one arm) hobble off on a journey from their humble west Ireland home in search of that child, now an old man himself. Along the way, they run into a crotchety old woman and a hard-drinking priest, both played by Nancy E. Carroll.
"Trad" has had quite a history on its own in productions from Australia to New Zealand. The play won the Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and when it was presented at the Galway Arts Festival, it was hailed as "bold, brilliant and funny."
Regular readers of the Irish Reporter will recall that I spoke with Colin Hamell to present a preview of the Tir Na production last April. As a result, I was invited to see the play. While I was looking forward to attending, I was not prepared for just how mesmerizing the play and the cast would be. One minute they're drop dead funny, and the next your heart is in your throat.
Of their original production, Hamell said, "I couldn't have been happier with the response to 'Trad.' Even though I was sure of the quality of the piece and of the cast and director, I was afraid that we might not get the crowds we deserved as theaters, in general, are struggling. It was great to see that it still rings true that if you make the right decisions and produce quality work, that word gets around and people come out in droves."
Hamell, who last performed at Gloucester in 2002 in a production of "The Weir" by Conor McPherson, got together with "Trad" playwright Mark Doherty just two weeks ago in Dublin. He said, "(Mark) is obviously delighted to have his work produced in America and was very chuffed with the reviews we got in Boston."
Eric Engel, now in his fourth season as Artistic Director at Gloucester Stage Company, saw the Tir Na production at the BCA and loved it. He said, "I actually tried to see 'Trad' a second time and couldn't get a ticket. I spoke with Carmel and Colin, and apparently their phone was ringing off the hook, and there was no possibility of an extension down at the BCA. So I produced it again so I could see it again. That's an oversimplification, but I knew there were a lot of people who wanted and needed to see it. And I thought it would be great for our space at the Gloucester. . . . and Nancy is an enormous favorite up here."
While the story is Irish based, the parent-child relationship is one to which anyone can relate. Throughout the story, the father is constantly correcting the son and telling him what to do, even though the son is an old man himself. It's a role the father simply cannot stop playing.
Eric said, "It obviously has its Irish charm and specificity, but the themes are so beautiful and so universal. And Carmel, as a person, is one of the most wonderful storytellers in the world. And she brings that craft to this piece so beautifully."
In reaction to the outpouring of affection the original Boston production received, Hamell said, "It's always a special feeling to be on stage and have every seat in the house taken. Also, the reaction of the audience after each show was very genuine and positive. Billy and Nancy as well as myself felt that the audience was with us on the journey throughout the play. The incredible reaction just makes you, as an actor, keep wanting to do it again. They are very excited to be getting the chance to perform in Gloucester."
The spark for the new engagement came as a result of a conversation between Engel and Carroll. Engel then approached Hamell who said he'd happily support the move if everyone else was on board.
Said Hamell: "Oftentimes it's very difficult to move a play as actors get involved in other productions. But after going back and forth for a while on the dates, we managed to pin everyone down for these couple of weeks."
As far as retaining the show's original charm at a slightly larger theater, Hamell adds, " I don't think this will be a problem. We have the same set designer and lighting designer as we did in Boston. Carmel will be directing us for the week before we open, and with her keen eye I am very confident we can produce the same show we had in Boston."
In a way, this new production in Gloucester plays into Hamell's mission. He said, "My original idea when I formed Tir Na Theatre was to produce plays that could potentially travel. In doing this, it's important to have a simple set and a small cast. Because we are a small company, it means we cannot transfer to larger venues on our own. But if we can get seen by producers in Boston and New York, then there's always a chance they'll pick our show up and we'll get a longer run in a different space. Even in doing the show now in Gloucester, I'll be looking to get more people in from New York to see it."
Both proud and optimistic, he said, "Maybe the journey will continue."
"Trad" by Mark Doherty, Sept. 2 - 12 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester. Tickets: 978-281-4433 or gloucesterstage.com.