by Tom Murphy
Directed by Carmel O'Reilly
Sugan Theatre Co. in Roberts Studio
Calderwood Pavilion
BCA, 537 Tremont, Boston / (617) 933-8600
Through Feb. 26

Reviewed by Will Stackman

Sugan continues reviving landmark plays from the Irish repertory. Boston's premiere Celtic theatre has success over the years with works by Tom Murphy, such as "Famine", "The Gigli Concert", and most recently "Ballegangaire". "The Sanctuary Lamp", one of six plays, out of some 25 by this seminal Irish author, chosen by the Abbey Theatre for a retrospective in 2001, hasn't gotten much play here in the States. While a quintessential piece of Celtic existentialism, it's paradoxically not particularly Irish. The empty Catholic church where it's set could be almost anywhere in the British Isles. Only one of the four characters is clearly Irish. But they 're all lost souls needing to talk to God, unsure He exists, with no future for themselves. The Eternal Flame hanging over the stage, which burns in the houses of worship of many faiths, becomes the focus of their interwoven tales.

Sugan's Artistic Director Carmel O'Reilly has as usual rounded up a cast uniquely suited to the show. At the center is Nigel Gore as Harry, an over-the-hill circus strong man who's wandered into this underused church. Gore, a Shakespearean actor and concert singer, was seen here several seasons ago in "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and more recently as Jefferson in Russell Lee's "Monticel'" at BPT. At the opening Harry's met by the Monsignor, played by Jackson Royal, a Wellesley Summer Theatre veteran also seen in CSC productions. Somewhat precipitously, the priest hires Harry to take over the recently vacated position of Parish Clerk. As sexton, this unlikely wanderer must replace the candle burning overhead as the eternal flame in the sanctuary. Unseen by either of them, Maudie has slipped into the church. Harry discovers this waif, played with admirable simplicity by Stacy Fischer, after the Monsignor leaves to go home and finish reading Hesse. Fischer was last seen this fall in Stoneham's production of "The Violet Hour" as an elegant sophisticate. Harry and Maudie's stories begin to unfold as they prepare to spend the night at the church, having nowhere else to go. Each has been effectively driven from their homes. The fourth character doesn't appear until the very end of the first act and isn't heard until the second.

But he's certainly heard from then. Francisco is played by Irishman Aidan Parkinson, seen last season in the Poet's Theatre production of Fo's "The Accidental Death of an Anarchist" as the Maniac. Parkinson, a Sugan veteran, is the Artistic Director of the venerable Poet's Theatre and a playwright as well. The central conflict of "The Sanctuary Lamp" is between Harry and Francisco, old friends who've fallen out for very personal reasons. The interplay between their stories and Maudie's becomes the agon of this dark philosophical comedy. The verbal action culminates in Parkinson's tirade from the pulpit which shakes them both. Murphy's style and construction of this piece marks him as a clear predecessor to the current generation of Irish playwrights, who've only Brian Friel as additional inspiration. His characters set forth their problems with a complexity that makes most contemporary drama seem banal. Murphy is not afraid to let them go on at length and to take on big questions emotionally.

Sugan's move into the larger black box space of the Robert's Studio has given designer J. Michael Griggs' a good deal more to work with. He's created a lattice-work abstraction of a church interior, mostly gray, with a real sanctuary lamp hanging in above. A raised altar, a central pulpit, an a pair of unused confessional boxes complete the picture, giving O'Reilly movement options which she uses fully. Costume designer Molly Trainer, who did "The Well of Saints" for Sugan last fall has found the right realistic, well-used clothes for the quartet, from Harry's seedy suit to Maudie's sagging slip and Francisco's suggestion of clownishness. Ace local lighting designer John R. Malinowski provides the atmosphere necessary to support the setting and the action, combining theatrical and realistic effects. Sound designer Rick Brenner keeps both the electronic church bells striking the hour and the requisite off-stage noises required by the script clear and appropriate. As usual, a first-rate production with no squandering of resources.

One of the questions about this play is whether or not it is truly anti-religious, specifically anti-Catholic. Certainly religion hasn't provided effective answers for the four souls crying out here. Even the Monsignor feels that his vocation has simply turned into a job. Harry, who might be partly Jewish, has seen fame pass him by, and with his friend and enemy Francisco sank into the depths. Maudie, a true naif, has the most personal tragedy and the simplest view of life. The brief human contact seen in this play however is the best thing that's happened to any of them recently. An Eternal Flame is one of the most universal of religious symbols, harking back at least to the fire sacred to Mazda, half of the Persian duality, which the children of Israel brought back from the Babylonian captivity. Harry may indeed feel at home addressing the Ner Tamid, while Maudie sees a barely recognized Holy Family in the stained glass windows by its light. The Monsignor is absent at the end, which may be the author's most direct comment about the Roman Church. But Francisco sees the world in a bloodier light, especially since Olga, Harry's sluttish wife he ran off with, has died. As Harry says at the very end of the play, the message may simply be "You know." But what can only be decided by viewing this intriguing piece, and contemplating its messages.

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