NEW YORK — Placing large historical events in the context of ordinary people's lives can bring the past back to life.
The world premiere of "Banished Children of Eve" succeeds in this resurrection, as an absorbing, intimate melodrama about a small, diverse group of New Yorkers caught up in the Draft Riots of 1863, a week of racial and mob violence that tore up Civil War Manhattan.
Writing by Kelly Younger, strong performances and lovely singing make for a rich theatrical evening at the Irish Repertory Theatre, where the lively production opened on Sunday.
Adapted by Younger from Peter Quinn's historical novel of the same name, "Banished" is tightly directed by Ciaran O'Reilly on a small, versatile set created by Charlie Corcoran.
The crowded, sweltering city erupted in riots on July 11, 1863, when a military draft was introduced that would force all men between 20 and 35 to serve in the Civil War, or buy their way out for $300. This was an excuse for discontented, mostly Irish mobs to pour into the streets, robbing the wealthy, fighting the ineffectual police and terrorizing New York's black population, whom they feared would take their jobs while they were away at war.
That larger violence forms the backdrop of Younger's focus on the lives of a group of black and Irish performers and neighbors over one day and night, near the notoriously unstable Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan.
External danger is gracefully hinted at by the production team's creative sound and lighting. Personal dramas are central, as the characters' lives suddenly intersect as they make desperate choices under pressure to survive.
David Lansbury and Amber Gray are poignant as lovers, Irish minstrel troupe leader Jack Mulcahy and lead actress Eliza. She's trying to pass for Cuban to evade the ban against black actors onstage in New York City. The couple is also sheltering a homeless black boy named Squirt, played with irrepressible charm by Christopher Borger.
Lansbury and Gray are excellent in their portrayals of two people whose improbable little family seems doomed by cultural obstacles.
The featured bad guy, standing in for all thieving Yankees of the day, is the unsavory Waldo Capshaw, played with sneering villainy by Graeme Malcolm. Rory Duffy plays a young Irishman caught up with Capshaw, forced to take a nice young Irish maid (Amanda Quaid) on a date so Capshaw can rob her boss' house.
Patrice Johnson is entertaining, if overly vigorous, as Euphemia, an older, street-wise black woman who views all the proceedings with cynicism. As the rioting in the streets escalates, these neighbors all gather for protection inside a bar that's also frequented by once-famed American songwriter Stephen Foster.
Foster was already a drunken has-been in 1863, but actor Malcolm Gets provides a musical highlight of the play, singing a sad version of "Beautiful Dreamer" while accompanying himself on an upright piano. As the riots increase in intensity outside, Quaid, Gray and Johnson join with Gets to outstandingly harmonize on another Foster song, "Hard Times Come Again No More."
O'Reilly smoothly moves his cast of ten between several key locations, including a minstrel theater where Jack and Eliza perform the ice-floe escape scene from "Uncle Tom's Cabin." With the period feel enhanced by Martha Hally's beautifully detailed costumes, this Irish Rep production brings an eventful bygone era to thrilling life.