There’s some fine acting in quite a good play, “The Belle of Belfast” at the DR2 Theatre, New York’s Irish Rep’s temporary home off Union Square. “The Belle of Belfast,” by Nate Rufus Edelman, takes place in 1985 Belfast, at the height of “the Troubles.” At the center is Anne Malloy (Kate Lydic, fantastic) a half-tortured, half-brat of a 17 year-old, whose parents were killed in a bomb blast when she was 10 years old, leaving her in the care of her nutty great-aunt Emma Malloy (Patricia Conolly, delightful first-rate), a situation she resents bitterly. Because of the way her parents died, they have been extolled as “heroes,” which Anne hates. If she had a choice between a united Ireland and her parents, she confides, she would take her parents. This dia-logue is relayed to her 35 year-old local parish priest Anne is in love with, Father Ben Reilly (Hamish Allan-Headley, stoic and droll); he is the only one she believes listens to her, it is late at night, in the rectory, and they are alone in a room together.
It doesn’t matter that I could see their illicit union coming a mile off, because what Anne awakens in Father Reilly, or Ben, as he asks her to call him, is a conflict of faith not only in his sacred vows, but also in his country. Ben has eulogized countless people from Belfast who were murdered; he now sees that in his heart, he condoned the ongoing violence by believing what he did about Anne’s parents – that they were heroes. He chooses to leave Belfast, and not just because his elderly, irascible fellow priest, Father Dermott Behan (Billy Melody, excellent), has told him in no uncertain terms, after hearing his confession, to clear off. Heartbroken that Ben won’t take her with him, Anne leaves before he can, telling no one where she has gone.
“The Belle of Belfast” is beautifully directed by Claudia Weill. With effective staging, light-ing, music, and projections, she created an authentic mood in very small space. I particularly liked the split stage, when Anne was singing in the street and Ben was hunched over in his rectory chair, clutching his rosary beads, begging forgiveness from God.
The church is an invisible but powerful force in this play, yet there is not a cross in sight. The three main characters cling to the church: they begin, they return, and end in the church. More than family, more than politics, more than love, for them the church is the constant, and the inescapable.
But the play itself felt that it could have ended in one of three different places; in other words, I don’t think Edelman knew how to end the play. So after all that Anne goes through, she is still able to retain her basic character: she lies, she is flirty, but she has made an enormous sacrifice. Ben, meanwhile, has relocated to County Galway; he remained in the church, but is no longer in his beloved Belfast. When they both return for Aunt Emma’s funeral, Anne shares her unexpected news in the confessional, he responds with grim silence. There is no penance given by him nor penance for him to do. In some way, both have transformed. Both have had epiphanies but couldn’t share them. Perhaps, in that split stage, closing monologues on either side would have made a more satisfactory conclusion. Including
Arielle Hoffman as Anne’s only friend, Ciara Murphy, the performances and direction are enough to warmly recommend “The Belle of Belfast.” I liken the play to a small gem, with a chipped edge, marring its beauty.