Brian Friel's The Home Place begins and ends with the same arresting image: Margaret (Sarah Agnew), the head domestic on an Irish estate, stares, transported, into the distance. Over unseen pastures rises up a choir singing "Oft in the Stilly Night," an air based on a lyric by poet Thomas Moore. Its harmonies are pleasing, sure, but as with everything else about this show, complex layers of meaning emerge from nearly every well-measured moment.
This Guthrie production is the North American premiere of Friel's play. The playwright and the director, Joe Dowling, have shared a decades-long affinity, and it shows in this assured staging.
After Margaret's initial transport, the tone takes a no-nonsense shift, and we're led through a brisk series of events that take place over the course of a single afternoon, watching stunned as so many illusions get dashed in a place more suited for a gentle idyll. (Frank Hallinan Flood's woods-and-house set frames the action with outsized lushness).
The late-19th-century estate where the action takes place is owned by Christopher (Simon Jones), a middle-aged fellow who is part of the odd class of Anglo-Irish landlords. Having spent his life in Ireland, Christopher and those like him still think of themselves as Englishmen, identifying with their titular "home place" (in Christopher's case, Kent) while living their lives as exiles (albeit wealthy ones, controlling vast swaths of Irish real estate like so many colonial occupiers).
When Christopher appears and begins to banter with Margaret, Agnew and Jones draw out the substantial subtleties of Friel's script. It turns out that Christopher is a sympathetic guy, chatting with Margaret as an equal and generally refraining from lording his status over his hired help and tenants. But then Christopher's hands demonstrate a magnetic attraction to Margaret's chest, while she subtly but serially fends off her employer's advances (which come across as a widower's hopeful stab at love, rather than petty lechery, lest one think we're veering off into cliché).
Houseguest and cousin Richard (Richard S. Iglewski) significantly ratchets up the tension. He's a medical researcher visiting from England to execute some appallingly racist research on the Irish natives. He arrives armed with calipers and measuring tape, for his grand purpose of identifying racial characteristics based on body measurements. Richard comes across as a droll, sparkly kind of hard-core racist, likeable at least until he grabs servant Sally (Maggie Chestovich) by the head and demonstrates his offhand sense of her innate inferiority.
Jones looks suitably aghast, but then there's yet another subtext. Earlier that day Christopher had attended the funeral of a fellow Anglo-Irish landlord who had met his fate from a beating administered by a still-at-large local. With the arrival of the surly Con (Matthew Amendt) in the middle of Richard's callous measuring of some locals, a gauntlet is thrown down: Either Richard departs immediately or the violence bubbling beneath the surface of the situation becomes manifest.
Iglewski gives a complicated performance, cheery yet pushing hard on Richard's blithe superiority. Amendt contributes by lending Con a straightforward integrity, combined with an intelligent sense that the moment for overturning the tables might well have arrived. Charles Keating, for his part, offers lyric, haunting work as Margaret's father, a drunkard who leads the choir whose offstage harmony bookends the action.
By the end, when Margaret hears those angelic strains again, she is holding onto the shattered Christopher, and Jones and Agnew have wrested a thrilling level of depth and eventual clarity from their characters. They sit in an Eden of sorts, but then we know how things eventually came out in that particular garden. The Home Place ends with its own notion of passage, both a premonition of history to come and a more universal sense of the mutability of all things. If thoughts are indeed synaptic electricity, this show frequently jams its wires into the main current.