The colorful historical figure Hugh O’Neill, the chief of an Irish clan as well as the British Earl of Tyrone, would swing both ways: He was a loyal subject to the British throne when he liked, and a renegade who led soldiers to fight for Irish freedom against the crown. The celebrated late Irish playwright Brian Friel, in his 1988 play “Making History,” paints O’Neill as a tempestuous, spotty commander with a young wife who, in the end, is the smart one.
This O’Neill is nicely realized by the emphatic portrayal of Ethan Lipkin in the co-production of “Making History” from the Irish Heritage Theatre and Plays and Players. O’Neill is the play’s main character and because Lipkin’s persuasive acting outshines much of what’s around him, the character becomes even more striking in director Peggy Mecham’s production. The evening is uneven if engaging, a glimpse into history from the late 1500s when the British were being attacked by Irish fighters in ambushes and skirmishes, with the official help of Spanish soldiers O’Neill recruited.
The timeframe is not listed in the program, nor are the play’s various settings – both would be a help in understanding what we’re seeing. O’Neill’s family and warrior background is spelled out in the “Making History” script, but only in its last minutes and as a sort of catch-up to the action we’ve been seeing. That’s when Peter Lombard, Ireland’s bishop primate, calms down a restless O’Neill – by this time in exile in Rome – by reading him the O’Neill history the bishop’s been writing for years.
The bishop is played by John Cannon as a demure and quiet man who looks the part. But he’s so quiet that what he says sometimes is lost, and so demure it’s puzzling why a character like O’Neill should put up with him. Even so, the bishop has a key role here – “Making History” is not just about O’Neill’s attempts to turn the tide of British colonization. It’s about making history, literally, the way the bishop attempts it. In his hands, writing history is not only about truth, it’s about spin. The play acknowledges both factors as a part of writing historical accounts, and leaves it up to us to reconcile them.
This theme – who gets to tell your story and how they tell it – is also an underpinning of the musical “Hamilton,” and much more dynamically. Friel’s “Making History” solidly makes its points, though, as it takes us through O’Neill’s plotting along with the archbishop, his private secretary (a nice turn by Bob Weick) and his unlikely pal, the Earl of Tryconnell (overacted as a goofball by Kevin Rodden). The play then moves on to O’Neill’s relationship to his wife (Stephanie Iozzia), the sister of one of his enemies. That relationship seems genuine and deep, as does the bond between his wife and her sister (Melissa Amilani), from a family loyal to the British. The credible performances of the two women in the roles strengthen the production.
Some scene changes were long when I saw “Making History” at last weekend’s opening, but the lovely recorded Irish music – also unattributed in the program – was pleasant in the interims. Not so great was the person who walked back and forth repeatedly behind Teddy Mosoeanu’s set on stage-right throughout the second act. There’s a large gap in that set, and whoever it was filled it. To my distraction.–“Making History,” co-produced by Irish Heritage Theatre and Plays and Players, runs through June 10 at Plays & Players, on Delancey Place between 17th and 18th Streets. www.irishheritagetheatre.org.