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Father Figure

Da Makes Up With the Old Man

Who's Your Daddy?: Leo Erickson and Dwight Tolar in DA

By Jack Purdy | Posted 9/26/2001


Hugh Leonard

Hugh Leonard's memory play Da is set outside Dublin, but it was born not far from Baltimore at the Olney Theatre in Montgomery County. There, some 30 years ago, Leonard was involved in the production of his farce The Patrick Pearse Motel. Sitting around with the performers, he would spin stories, mostly about his father, who had been for many decades a gardener to wealthy Protestants. The late actor John McGiver finally asked Leonard if there wasn't a play in there somewhere, and shortly thereafter came Da.

Since its first New York production in 1978, Da has become an evergreen. It's Irishness is comfortable, a far cry from the bitter nation-hating of the younger Martin McDonagh. And the theme of a middle-aged man coming to terms with the memory of his dead parents is one most audiences can empathize with. Most of all, Da is a mature comic work--both in its craft and in the sense that Leonard, in his 40s when he wrote it, had begun forgiving his folks for the years they drove him mad with piety and shattered dreams, in the case of his mom, and a forelock-tugging subservience, on the part of his dad. The play is almost literally autobiographical, which makes Leonard's achievements as a writer all the more remarkable.

Leonard's analogue in Da is Charlie (Dwight Tolar), who's returned to Dublin from London after his father's death. Sorting out his father's few effects on the day of the funeral, Charlie is visited, in the flesh, by two figures out of his past: his boyhood friend Oliver (Lance Lewman) and his former boss, Mr. Drumm (Bill Largess). But also, out of his own head, Charlie conjures up his mother (Rena Cherry Brown), his younger self (Jonas Grey), and most especially his da, or dad (Leo Erickson).

Da's a man who can work for rich people for decades and, when given a miserly pension, say, "Wasn't I paid cash every Friday for the work I did?" Whatever knocks life hands down, Da always ignorantly looks on the bright side. Charlie, an adopted child with pretensions to literature, is embarrassed by his father yet can't help feeling a tug of affection for a man who has none of Charlie's mother's bitterness. He may be foolish and subservient, but he's ultimately good in the most human of ways.

Leonard deftly illustrates this with a scene of young Charlie making time with a "bad" girl, known to all the boys as "the Yellow Peril" (Elizabeth McNamara). Clumsily coming on to her as they sit on the Dublin seawall, Charlie is appalled when his da ambles past and soon engages the young girl in conversation, realizing he knows all her relatives and drawing out her real name, Mary Tate. Going on his way, Da tells his son, "This is a good girl, Charlie." But the son, grief-stricken, says, "I didn't want Mary Tate. I wanted the Yellow Peril." Da has so humanized this sexual object that all of Charlie's lust flees shamefully.

Years later, the memory still brings Charlie pangs of regret. Tolar captures that regret throughout, while always holding the edge of anger Charlie needs, especially when confronting his mother, whom Brown makes a vulnerable tyrant. And Largess earns special mention as Drumm, Charlie's persnickety ex-employer, who delivers a legacy to cap the play. Himself dying, Drumm asserts, "The only indisputable poor particle of certainty in my entire life is that, in a public-house lavatory, incoming traffic has the right of way."

Now that's truth-telling.

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