Sons of Molly Maguire
nytheatre.com review by Kim Wadsworth
July 15, 2007
History plays are tricky for playwrights; you have to find just the right balance between putting in enough context to help the audience understand the event itself, and taking enough poetic license to make the story work as a play. John Kearns is to be commended for trying to include as many of the details of the event as possible in his Sons of Molly Maguire; however, erring on the side of education doesn't always make for entertainment.
Kearns's story deals with the Molly Maguires, a vigilante group active in the coal region of Pennsylvania in the 1870s. Irish immigrant miners had to contend with xenophobic and anti-Catholic mine bosses, who gave fairer treatment and easier jobs to immigrants from Wales or England. Even worse, the mine owners mostly ignored the appeals from Irish labor activists, who tried to start unions in the mines and use peaceful means of resolving conflict.
A handful of men chose to take a more forceful approach. Calling themselves the "Sons of Molly Maguire," after a similar vigilante group then active in Ireland, they started by engaging in criminal mischief—blowing up stretches of mine track, and sending harassing notes to mine bosses—and soon escalated into killing some mine employees who they felt opposed their efforts. One mine owner hired the Pinkerton detective agency to bust the Maguires, and they in turn hired another Irish immigrant to work undercover as a miner and Maguires member; Agent McParland spent three years among the Maguires, secretly feeding evidence to the Pinkertons and ultimately testifying against his former fellows in court.
McParland is one of the characters in this work, but the story mainly follows Jack Kilbride a young Irish American man who at play's rise is locking horns with his father about how to fight back against the mine owners. The elder Kilbride feels that a peaceful approach is best, while Jack, frustrated with the mine owner's indifference, is ready to use force. He joins the Maguires, where he soon meets McParland, and comes under McParland's investigation.
As with any historical work, the political and historical back story is complex: there's the influence of the Catholic Church, the social divide in United States society (and, surprisingly, in Irish immigrant society), the question of peaceful struggle over armed resistance, and the like. But while sometimes Kearns's treatment uses arresting theatricality to grab your attention and make his point, at other times, he simply puts speeches into the mouths of the characters, and the effect is more pageant-ish than theatrical. One scene even baffled me; Kearns tells one story by flashing forward in time to the present, to a scene with a docent at a history museum telling some bored tourists an anecdote from the Maguires' trial. It was different, but may have been simply too different to fit the rest of the work.
The cast, rounded out by an ensemble who easily move in and out of a wealth of roles, does make the best of the material; but one scene, and one actress, are the real standouts. McParland starts a romance with the sister of one of the Maguires, in an effort to win the trust of the community. In a scene from very early in their relationship, McParland tries to woo Alice by reciting a poem he's written for her; Emily Moment is utterly charming in this scene, and the dialogue is refreshingly free of politics; Kearns lets the scene simply be about a boy and girl flirting. And it's that simplicity that makes a later scene, where Alice reacts to news about McParland's true identity, all the more poignant; Kearns gives her a few speeches in the scene, but we know what she is really thinking and saying. The earlier scene is a place where Kearns and the cast didn't seem shackled by trying to Teach A Lesson, and it is lovely to see.