Playwright Conor McPherson is the focus of great attention and acclaim these days. McPherson received the Stewart Parker Award for Playwriting in 1994 and the George Devine Award in 1997 with his play St Nicholas. He went on to win an Olivier Award for Best New Play in 1999 with his follow-up The Weir. In 2006, he received a Tony Award nomination for Shining City and an Olivier Award nomination for Best New Play for The Seafarer. The current buzz is about his play Girl from the North Country, based on the music of Bob Dylan. It’s a hit in London’s West End and in Toronto (see Sesaya’s review here), and is headed to Broadway next year.
McPherson has deservedly become a big deal. Fly on the Wall Theatre Company continues its celebration of the Irish playwright’s work and provides a welcome opportunity to see his second play The Good Thief (1994), directed by Rod Ceballos and featuring David Mackett. Mackett is a McPherson authority: he first performed The Good Thief at the 2006 Toronto Fringe Festival, directed by Autumn Smith. Before that, he performed in McPherson’s Port Authority in 2016 and Dublin Carol in 2017. A one-actor play, The Good Thief is narrated by a small-time thug, who opens the play by telling his version of “an incident…” A job that should have been routine was botched. Now, his employer wants rid of him, and the police want someone to pin the murder and kidnapping on.
So the narrator is on the lam, accompanied by the wife of one of the men who died in the incident, plus her young daughter. He is desperate to stay one step ahead of the police, his boss, and quite possibly the IRA. The story is rich in plot and events, which the shady and unnamed narrator relates in vivid detail. Deceptive in its simplicity, The Good Thief is being produced in Dora Keogh’s Irish Pub on the Danforth, an immersive, evocative, and appropriate setting that foregrounds the actor to tell the story. Certainly, Mackett’s interpretation of the narrator should be a significant draw in itself.
Ahead of the opening, we spoke with Mackett and Ceballos about this gem from the McPherson canon, and chatted about McPherson’s artistic beginnings, the abiding relevance of the play and the complex humanity of the narrator.
SesayArts: As The Good Thief is a one-man play, let’s start with your character. Tell us about him and your approach to the role, especially for those who might not be familiar with the play.
DM: My character describes himself as a “paid thug”. He works for a Dublin mobster, and does small jobs for him. Essentially, he’s the guy who shows up at your door if you are late paying your debt, and by all accounts, he is very good at his job.
What might be surprising about him, is that (in spite of his “profession”) he has much wider worldview than you would expect. He also seems to crave normalcy. The event that he describes in the play (a routine job that goes terribly wrong) took place many years ago, but he continues to be haunted by it. I think of the hockey players, whose job on the ice is to be “the enforcer” – they are expected to drop the gloves at any moment, but doing so takes a toll. Many end up with addiction and mental health issues, and continue to be scarred many years after they’ve retired.
In approaching the role, I’ve tried to find this man’s humanity and his ongoing struggle with his past.
SesayArts: What is a line of dialogue or moment in the play that, to you, sums up your character?
DM: “I wanted to live there, so I could pull in, sit by the fire and have a few drinks. Eat my dinner and go to bed and in bed, my pretty wife would tell me she wasn’t my judge, and I’d sleep and sleep and dream until the next thing I’d do which would be an interesting thing.”
SesayArts: Why do you think it’s a good time for this play in Toronto, and who should come and see it?
RC: We are celebrating a huge work (The Girl from the North Country) of Conor McPherson’s right now in North America, which is being presented by Mirvish here in Toronto…and one that is Broadway-bound. For all audiences, It’s important to know and understand the origins of the playwright’s artistic beginnings, i.e., where he came from and what his aesthetic interests are and continue to be.
DM: The Good Thief is an early work of Conor McPherson’s and is the play that started to get him some recognition, at least in Ireland. These days, he is considered by many to be the finest playwright of his generation, so it is always interesting to see the beginning of this journey.
As a producer, I sometimes wonder if we work too hard to figure out or justify why we are presenting a play at a particular time and place – it’s important because you want to put “bums in seats”, but a good story is a good story regardless.
That being said, the play does bring to mind an important issue that we confront every day. And that is how quickly we judge and stereotype people, whether it be because of their appearance or their circumstances. We are often blinded by these things, and are unable to recognize the human being standing in front us – a person with feelings, desires, and dreams.
SesayArts: What was your reaction on first reading the play? Has that reaction changed as a result of the rehearsal process?
DM: I have a bit of a history with this play. I first performed it at the 2006 Toronto Fringe Festival. I remember thinking that I was completely wrong for the part – I had a preconceived idea that I had to be at least 6 feet tall, look physically imposing, and have a deeply imbedded mean streak. In many ways, he is the complete opposite of who I am. As I worked on it, though, I discovered that he was a far more complex character than I initially had given him credit for – and as an actor, it’s always exciting to tackle these roles.
RC: As a director, my first reaction was a complete and total understanding and empathy for this man with his “unrequited yearnings”. Nothing has changed for him. Such a burden that he bears and will continue to bear.
SesayArts: What is one thing that has surprised you and one thing that has challenged you in your work on The Good Thief?
RC: The one thing that has surprised me about the play and David’s work in the rehearsal process is his openness/emotional availability, his understanding of the human condition, and his fearlessness to embrace this imperfect person.
DM: My biggest challenge: avoiding theatricality – the appearance that I am talking at the audience as opposed to with them. Even though it is one-sided, I want to engage in a conversation with the audience. This is especially important, given we are in a small venue (Dora Keogh’s).
My biggest surprise: how much empathy I have for the character – There but for the grace of God, go I….
News You Can Use
What: The Good Thief, by Conor McPherson ∣ Directed by Rod Ceballos ∣ Performed by David Mackett ∣ Presented by Fly on the Wall Theatre
When: On stage until October, 29, 2019
Where: Dora Keogh’s Irish Pub, 141 Danforth Avenue, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: flyonthewalltheatre.ca
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019