You can learn a lot about Ireland just by attending plays like Theatre Downtown's production of Hugh Leonard's Da. The land is verdant and magic fills the air, but there's never any work, never any money, and everything is compressed into a small room with a peat fire. There's always a good excuse to drink fear of parents, fear of sex, fear of the church and fear of an arbitrary God who sends famine (and the English) as readily as the occasional sunny day and pint of stout.
And the worst part? Just because someone dies doesn't mean they loosen the guilt leash. Just look at Charlie (David Bass). He moved to London and ditched the accent, but he's still suffering the disapproval of an extinct parent. Mother died a while ago, and now his father, fondly known as "Da" (Tom Sexton), has joined her, leaving Charlie to pay off the bar tab and clean out the drawers of the old man's cottage. A few friends show up to hold out their hands like unctuous Oliver (Derek Ormond), whom Charlie left behind when he escaped small-town nowhere.
The living may be safely ignored, but the all-powerful deceased still populate this town of Charlie's childhood. They're not the scary, Halloween type of ghost, just memories so brilliant they out-act the living, dragging Charlie down into the depths of "would have, could have, but didn't." The hardest to kill is always the father, and Da insists on hanging on in his easy chair and reminding his son how he ought to pay more respect to his elders (and anyone else who can pass along a farthing or two).
Sexton captures the kindly, passive-aggressive aura that old men can intuitively emit; his Da is the sort that can drive you to distraction over the smallest nit. We're glad we aren't related to him. Meanwhile, Bass convinces us that he's escaped from this small-town poverty, made something of himself and now feels the icy fingers of his past pulling him back toward his roots.
From Da leaks all of Charles' childhood, a none-too-pleasant experience. Daniel Cooksley plays the younger Charlie as a gangly and friendly young man looking for a respectable job and sex (not necessarily in that order). Stiffly formal Mr. Drumm (Bill Mackenzie) offers him clerking work in exchange for his soul, and Charlie jumps on it, since there's no heavy lifting and you get to wear clean clothes. Sex, an even rarer commodity, is embodied by the sultry yet distant easy girl of the town, nicknamed "Yellow Peril" (Jennifer Gannon). Young Charlie makes good progress with her until Da shows up, reducing her from a promising temptress to a shirttail relation.
Da is ostensibly presented in English, although subtitles would be a help in piercing its Guinness-thick brogues. Most of the actors lather it on thick, adding to the atmosphere but detracting from intelligibility. Still, you don't need to hear all the words to appreciate the warmth that pervades the claustrophobic set. While Charlie spent his youth frustrated and ready to get on with life, his parents held him back, firmly stuck in their own pasts and their own microscopic view of the universe. It takes death for Charlie to realize his true feelings for the forelock-tugging old man, and the ones Da held for Mother. "Love and hate what a beautiful combination!" someone once sang; that's the heart of life, and no one sums it up better than the Irish. Bless their maudlin little hearts.