I Knock at the Door/Pictures in the Hallway
nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
December 1, 2007
Sean O'Casey loved words. The Irish playwright and activist had a chronic childhood eye disease and had to stay away from school. But throughout his life he managed to read widely and write prolifically, and at 84 he was still listening to BBC's school program. This love for words, and indeed his mastery of them, is evident in The New Globe Theatre's 50th anniversary revival of I Knock at the Door, adapted for the stage from O'Casey's memoir of his childhood by Paul Shyre. One is treated to words so animated and imaginative that it is quickly apparent why Shyre devised it in a "staged concert" format, reminiscent of the fully rehearsed staged readings we see today. It is more invigorating and mesmerizing than most action-packed conventional plays, and you should not miss it.
Six actors on stools, one of them acting as narrator, tell of O'Casey's birth in Dublin in 1880. He had three brothers and one sister before him, but also two dead brothers—both named John—and one dead sister. His father insists that he should be named John as well, over his mother's fear of the seeming curse attached to that name. Against all odds, "The third Johnny crawled a little further into life." When he is five, however, his mother notices "a look of torment in his eyes." The long and extremely painful battle against eye illness begins, and dictates the boy's entire childhood.
This hardship belies the fact that O'Casey is a tremendously humorous writer. In fact the gruesome poverty, death of his father, political upheaval of the Nationalist movement, and his own physical torment only bring into highlight his resilience and uncanny ability to find poignancy with sparkling wit. The laughter is as real as the pain, and the audience is transported by both.
In Shyre's script, published in 1958, one finds a meticulous lighting plot and music cues, specific to the very words at which those designs need to be executed. Director Stuart Vaughan, who helmed the original production as well, again faithfully realizes the nuances and modulations of the play. The six lively actors play multiple roles and are often breathtaking in their portrayals of heartache or joy. They also offer beautiful singing that complements the action perfectly. Gil Rogers as narrator and Sean O'Casey is the bedrock of the play. Salome Jens is lovingly heartbreaking as the mother. Nancy McNulty offers something truly rare—she seems to enjoy the words as much as O'Casey must have himself. There is a twinkle in her eyes and her performance is 100% self-possessed. I believed every word she said.
You can read more about O'Casey's fascinating life in this short biography. This show will very likely to induce you to see Pictures in the Hallway, about O'Casey's early manhood, which The New Globe is offering up in rotating repertory with I Knock at the Door.
At the end of the play the narrator concludes, "Well, he'd learned poetry and had kissed a girl. If he hadn't gone to school, he'd met the scholars. If he hadn't gone into the house, he had knocked at the door!" This play is an open door to a remarkable life, inviting all comers to peer inside.