Those Sick and Indigent

Mark Lambert and Shane O'Reilly  in 'Those Sick and Indigent' at Bewley's Café Theatre.

Mark Lambert and Shane O'Reilly in 'Those Sick and Indigent' at Bewley's Café Theatre.

We’ll all die with secrets, every one of us. Despite the papers, the clothes, the objects we leave behind that map out a life lived, gaps in our personal narratives will persist. This is the reality of our lives and deaths: everything that we are is guaranteed to dissipate after we die, as the objects associated with us begin to lose their significance. For those who have been forgotten by society, ‘those sick and indigent’ who pack the shelters and doorways of Dublin, that process of erasure has already begun, as we ignore not just their basic plight for food or sanctuary, but their basic humanity as well. As Alan O’Regan’s engaging one act attests, being cut off from the network of basic human recognition signals a kind of living death, as the story of a life is buried under drink, drugs, or mental illness.

The play is set in the bare bedroom of a Dublin homeless shelter, simply evoked by the clean, sharp angles of Miriam Duffy’s set. Joe (Gerry O’Brien), known to his fellow residents as ‘Oxo’, has recently lost his roommate, Jack Gannon. Ronan (Shane O’Reilly), a young care worker, comes to comfort Oxo and to catalogue the last effects of Gannon. The two are joined by Finbar (Mark Lambert), another resident of the shelter who’s been drafted in to assist Ronan, and whose erratic tomfoolery immediately sets Oxo on edge. A rough sketch of Oxo’s roommate emerges as Gannon’s sparse belongings are notated, the discovery of which draws out raw but meaningful details of the lives of the three men attempting to document Gannon’s life.

Despite their proximity, it becomes painfully clear that the lack of personal knowledge shared among not only those on stage, but the population of the shelter as a whole, leaves only a shady outline of who they are, or were. Ronan is hesitant about revealing too much to Finbar, risking the professional boundary he so firmly establishes. Oxo can only speak in halting, fractured sentences while he rocks on his bed, tightly gripping a vase, the contents of which are a mystery. Finbar masks his own secrets under a flaking veneer of wisecracks and desperate jokes. Like the remnants of Gannon’s existence, these men aren’t willing to offer up too much knowing revelations, trapped either by their fears, their illness, or their circumscribed role within the shelter. When Ronan asks if Finbar actually knew Gannon, Finbar begs off: “Depends on what you mean by 'know',” he says. “We are all brothers in the eyes of God.” The uncomfortable impossibility of truly knowing someone hangs darkly over the proceedings.

The ensemble as a whole is to be commended for the commitment, detail, and shape given to their performances. O’Regan’s script has, for the most part, worked hard to eschew stereotypes of mental illness or indigence, and his efforts are carefully reflected in the work of Mark Lambert and Gerry O’Brien, and aided by Dan Reardon’s workmanlike direction. O’Brien’s Oxo is a complicated system of jerks and mechanic rituals, where the checking of a broken wristwatch becomes an expression of a psyche clinging helplessly to tokens of routine. Despite this feat of fraught physical expression, O’Brien is able to effectively hint at a deep emotional life buried under the neurotic quirks.

Lambert’s Finbar provides a few needed laughs, but most of these are rightly blunted by the desperation evident in Finbar’s insistent exhibitionism. Shane O’Reilly, while functional as Ronan, misses out on infusing the character’s stiff piety with some needed vulnerability. This could reflect a missed directorial opportunity, but the revelations of the last half of the play, and Ronan’s role in revealing them, points to a lack of dynamism in O’Regan's drafting of the character. It also points to the plot’s veering off into soap opera territory, as the significance of the objects left by Gannon are given their full weight, thanks to the exposition provided by a lengthy letter. Over the course of five minutes, flesh is added to the bones of Gannon’s past, a courtesy not paid to any of the other characters, whose absent histories continue to linger, just out of view.

In spite of the strength of the playwriting and performances, the power of the play's argument that there’s a deep, unknowable history buried even within those whom society shuns, is undercut by the connecting of the dots offered so readily at play’s end. A more considered ambiguity would have served, bolstering the sensitivity of O'Regan’s writing, and more truthfully staging the reality the play purports to represent.

Jesse Weaver was recently awarded a PhD in Theatre Studies from UCC, and is a playwright.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Those Sick and Indigent by Alan O'Regan

9 - 21 January, 2012

Produced by Bewleys Café Theatre
In Bewleys Café Theatre

Directed by Dan Reardon

Set Design: Miriam Duffy

With: Mark Lambert, Gerry O'Brien, Shane O'Reilly