nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 10, 2005
Communion is about a young Irish man, Jordan McHenry, who has come to his boyhood home to die. He has a brain tumor in its advanced stages; he's on strong doses of morphine to relieve his pain and, as far as we can tell, he's pretty much immobile and needs around-the-clock care. Tending to him are his mother, Martha; his younger brother, Marcus; his neighbor, Arthur McLoughlin; a priest, Father Anthony O'Driscoll; and, more fitfully, Marcus's girlfriend, Felicity.
I said Communion is about Jordan just now, but that's not really accurate. Communion happens around Jordan; what it's really about is the way that his imminent death affects these five people, who would have trouble getting along with one another even under less challenging of circumstances. The key conflict in the play is between Martha and Marcus. He is mentally disabled—I think bipolar?—and on medication to control his symptoms; he spent several years institutionalized. Martha is long-suffering by nature and passive-aggressive with regard to this younger son who has yielded nothing but disappointment; she's not above telling him that she wishes he were the one dying.
The other three characters float around this relationship like satellites. Father Anthony tries to offer comfort but winds up challenging both mother son, though for different reasons. Felicity seems to offer some hope for Marcus's personal growth into responsible adulthood, but Martha seldom moves beyond kneejerk dislike for the girl. Arthur, gently annoying and—this is important to Martha, who is Catholic—a Methodist, feels something like comic relief. Playwright Aidan Mathews makes all of his characters interesting, and even provides tantalizing details about them—Father Anthony has just returned from Rwanda, Arthur has a greenhouse full of marijuana on his property—that are never quite filled in and ultimately don't seem to add up to anything significant.
I felt distanced from the play because the only character I felt any empathy for was the dying Jordan, who turns out to be, as I've already suggested, not protagonist but catalyst: he's made peace with his fate, his faith, and his God long before the action of Communion begins, and so his particular journey, interesting and fruitful though it must have been, is not charted here.
I felt confused by the play because its actual protagonists, Martha and Marcus, are so disagreeable and narrow. The program makes a point of telling us that the house is in a "fashionable" suburb of Dublin: the McHenrys clearly have money. So why are these two remaining family members saddled together for what seems like eternity in this day and age? Surely Martha can afford to leave the son she so ardently dislikes behind forever. (If she behaved as a real person surely would, though, Mathews would have no play.)
One thing that I found quite special about the production, though, was the palpable, very affecting way that Jordan's room—the one he grew up in, where he has now come to live out his final days—felt so authentic. From the moment Communion began, I was always aware that we were in a very personal, private place of respite and sanctuary. I'm not exactly sure how director M. Burke Walker, set designer Michael V. Moore, and actor Ean Sheehy (giving the play's one emotionally resonant performance as Jordan) accomplished this, but they definitely made this particular concept vivid.