Freedom of the City, Brian Friel's gripping play that is being given a powerful revival by New York's Irish Repertory Theatre, opens with a burst of gunfire followed by the wail of a siren. When the lights come up, the stage is littered with three bodies and photographers are busily snapping pictures of them.
Written in the aftermath of the "Bloody Sunday" massacre of protest marchers by British Army troops in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 40 years ago, the play is still timely. The geography may have changed, but a glance at today's headlines will testify to its continuing relevance.
Friel's play takes place on the afternoon of Feb.10, 1970. A peaceful protest rally in Derry has been dispersed by British soldiers. Three marchers seeking refuge from the fog of tear gas and salvoes of rubber bullets find themselves in the Lord Mayor's office in the city's Guildhall. They end up as the bodies in the opening tableau.
Friel has been the dominant voice of Irish theater for the past half century, a successor to O'Casey and Yeats and a contemporary forerunner of Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh. His Dancing at Lughnasa won a Tony and ran for 400 performances on Broadway, and Philadelphia, Here I Come has been staged in most American theaters. Freedom of the City is his most overtly political play and can still inspire a sense of outrage at the injustice not only at the killing of unarmed marchers but at the official cover-up that follows.
The play moves backward and forward in time, splicing scenes together from that fateful day to the inquiry that followed. From the opening scene of the shootings, the action moves to a courtroom where a judge is questioning an officer of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The constable is giving particulars of each of the victims, but the judge is mainly interested in one question. Did the constable see any firearms near the bodies?
Friel then takes the audience from a curbside view of the breakup of the rally to TV news reports of the "occupation" of the Guildhall to army press conferences to further court testimony to a priest's homily at a Requiem mass to a sociologist's lecture on the consequences of institutionalized poverty.
The three unfortunate protest marchers, unknown to one another and fleeing the army crackdown, end up together on a side street to Guildhall Square. One of them, a young man called Skinner, finds an open door where they can escape the cloud of tear gas. It is only after they are inside they realize they have wandered into the private office of the city's mayor.
Apart from Skinner, an orphan with an irreverent streak and a mistrust of all authority, there is Michael Flaherty, an intense young man who is engaged to be married and by contrast has an inherent respect for authority. Between these two is Lily Doherty, a 43-year-old mother of 11 who isn't real sure why she joins the marches except she needs the exercise.
While they wait for the tear gas to clear, they make themselves at home, sampling the mayor's liquor cabinet and trying on his ceremonial robes. Unbeknownst to them, however, the TV news is reporting that a 40 or 50-member gang of terrorists has seized the entire Guildhall and are all heavily armed.
An army press officer confirms this alarming report and the commanding general surrounds the building with sharpshooters and Saracen armored personnel carriers and demands everyone come out with their hands up. When the trio complies, they are shot dead instantly. The army insists that not only were they armed themselves, but that the three actually came out shooting and his soldiers only returned fire.
Ciaran O'Reilly's deft direction keeps building tension toward the play's foregone conclusion, and a solid cast of nine actors portray some 20 roles ably and seamlessly. Cara Seymour is endearing as Lily, a woman beset by more than her share of life's hardship yet smiles more than she complains. James Russell and Joseph Sikora add fine turns as Michael and Skinner. And John C. Vennema is a model of British officiousness.