The wit and wisdom of 'Da'


When we grow up and leave home we take a load of emotional baggage with us. Da, a charming, funny comedy-drama by the Irish dramatist Hugh Leonard, shows us the attempts of a man to deal with this baggage - especially the part of it created by his infuriating stepfather.

As the play opens, Da has just died at a great age, and Charlie, now a successful playwright in London, has flown back to Dublin to do the necessary things.

Memories flood in on him as he looks around the house in which he grew up. He begins to relive scenes from his childhood and young manhood, sometimes taking part in them, sometimes looking on from the outside. He sees his dead father and his younger self (a separate character called "Charlie then") and they have conversations - more accurately, arguments - about what they've lived through together.

The boy Charlie cannot wait to get away from his foster parents. Gifted with literary taste and talent, he finds himself in permanent conflict with their narrow outlook, and their emotional problems take a toll on him.

Da, subservient and lacking in ambition, has spent his life as a gardener for a well-to-do family. His childlike, quicksilver temperament exasperates his son, but, ironically, he is the only character in the play who knows happiness.

Mag, Charlie's stepmother, is volatile and unable to show affection. She married Da under pressure from her parents, but she has never forgotten the man she really loved. Her bitterness at Da and his jealousy of her lost love eventually cause an eruption. The conclusion is foregone: After reviewing his years of unhappiness and frustration, Charlie has to accept the fact that we cannot escape our past.

As "Charlie now," Dwight Tolar, on stage every minute, delivers a strong portrait of a man who has grown to maturity at considerable emotional cost. In the title role, Leo Erickson successfully indicates the charm that is Da's saving grace. Rena Cherry Brown (Mother) and Jonas Grey ("Charlie then") bring the rest of the family to vivid life. Lance Lewman ably supports them as Oliver, Charlie's boyhood friend.

Drumm, an imperious bureaucrat who gives Charlie his first job, is played by Bill Largess with fitting stiffness and cynical wisdom. Drumm is not a likable man, but the dialogue makes it clear that he is human underneath. This we are not shown.

Da's employer, Mrs. Prynne, a member of what in Ireland used to be called the Ascendancy, is played by Robin Ervin with the right degree of smooth condescension. Elizabeth McNamara portrays Mary Tate, a neighborhood girl with a bad reputation.

Leonard has a gift for colorful, even poetic language. Under the guidance of dialect/vocal coach BettyAnn Leeseberg-Lange, the actors attempt the dialect and the musical lilt of Irish speech with various degrees of success. Often they have to raise their voices in family squabbles, and between the dialect and the shouting too many words get lost.

A carefully detailed set by Lou Stancari puts the action in an appropriately depressing setting. Jonathon Blandin's lighting does a subtle job of helping the audience distinguish the now from the then and the living from the dead.

The script posed a problem for props designer Robert Marietta: One of Da's household treasures is a glass artifact supposedly composed of 30 pairs of spectacles that had melted and fused together during the San Francisco earthquake-fire of 1906. Somehow Marietta came up with it.

In a show that jumps around in three decades - the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s - the costumes by Rosemary Pardee are successful in evoking a bygone period. Sound designer Brian Keating provides recorded guitar music, unobtrusive and emotionally neutral, to serve as transitions.

Da is a lovely play, full of wit, charm, wisdom and keen observation of life - family life in particular. Kasi Campbell's sensitive direction brings out all its virtues.

Rep Stage at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, presents "Da" through Oct. 7. Show times are at 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Information and reservations: 410-772-4900.

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