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“Corktown ‘57” – A world premiere production at the Odyssey Theatre

Andrew Connolly and Rebecca Tilney. Photo by Ed Krieger
Andrew Connolly and Rebecca Tilney. Photo by Ed Krieger

Before launching into a review of John Fazakerley’s “Corktown ’57” and its world premiere at the Odyssey Theatre, it would seem appropriate to give some background on Corktown, Pennsylvania, the setting in which Fazakerley’s powerfully-written play takes place.

In order to flee from Ireland’s 1840s Great Irish Potato Famine, several million Irish, primarily from County Cork, migrated to the United States, settling on the west side of Detroit, Michigan.

With half of the population of the 8th Ward being Irish, that section became known as Corktown and ultimately became a staging ground for pro-Irish activities, which supported the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Ultimately, Corktown was designated a City of Detroit Historic District and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This riveting Irish-American family drama unfolds in the basement of a store owned by Frank Keating (John Ruby) and his wife Janice (Natalie Britton).

At rise, their young son Johnny (an adorable Jonah Beres) is stacking empty soda bottles in cases.

There is some tension in the air as his dad scurries down the basement steps to check on things. It turns out that Frank, a.k.a. Francis, has invited his long-lost brother John (Andrew Connolly) to visit him.

John, one of nine Keating siblings, is the family outcast, as they believe he betrayed them by joining the British army when the family left Ireland, ultimately rising to the rank of general. He is also accused of being part of the dreaded, ultra-violent Black and Tans, (Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve) created by Winston Churchill to fight and control the IRA. He insists that he never shot an Irishman and the reason for his actions is revealed later in the play.

Ciaran Coughlin (Kevin P. Kearns) is Frank’s brother-in-law who is married to his sister Marie Keating-Coughlin (Belen Greene). Ciaran, an IRA activist, is furious about John’s visit, referring to him as a turncoat.

Janice is terrified that if the town finds out about John’s visit, they will be attacked, but Frank assures her that no one knows except the family. If dealing with all this was not enough, Frank and Janice are to become victims of eminent domain, which meant they were going to lose their home. Frank wants to move to California but Janice refuses to leave her family.

In the meantime, Kaitlin Keating (Rebecca Tilney) is also an IRA activist doing “cookie drives” to raise money for weapons. John informs everyone that she is in danger as the English are onto her and she will probably be arrested by the Americans and extradited to England to stand trial. When Kaitlin and John come face to face, she explodes in anger and refuses to listen to his warnings about her safety. It should be noted that this family really enjoys the drink and much imbibing takes place at every opportunity.

The lynchpin to his absorbing family drama is the dad Mike (Nick Tate) who has been diagnosed with cancer and has but months to live. He refuses to try this new form of treatment called chemotherapy for which the family is willing to pool their money to cover the costs. In one of the lighter moments Marie asks, “What’s going on down here,” to which Mike answers “We’re celebrating my imminent demise.”

John continues to be adamant about putting a stop to his sister’s “cookie drives” and asks to meet with the local IRA mucky muck by the name of Tim Flynn (Josh Clark) with the understanding that Flynn would issue a “pass” guaranteeing John’s safety.

At the top of Act II, we meet Flynn who tries to lighten up the proceedings with a joke. “Did you hear about the blind Irish hooker? They had to hand it to her.” Big laugh. Ciaran doesn’t find anything funny and hatches a plan to kidnap John and trade him for 200 prisoners being held by the British.

Flynn puts a kibosh on that idea saying he’s guaranteed John’s safety. John reiterates again that Kaitlin is under surveillance by MI5 and that her arrest is imminent. Flynn also tries to convince her to cease her activities at which point she questions whether he’s still fit to lead. When queried as to how MI5 found out about Kaitlin’s activities, John says there are spies in this town working for the British, including the priest commenting, “How do you think he can afford to pay a mistress with a vow of poverty?”

Besides the looming danger around John’s visit, there is personal relationship challenges between Frank and Janice who suffered a tragedy. They have not had sex in a year and in a poignant moment, Frank lovingly dances with her to the song “You Send Me.” There is also an interesting past relationship between Ciaran and Kaitlin, which has not gone unnoticed by his wife Marie. The drama continues with surprising twists and turns right to the end, one of which Mike orchestrates in an effort to right some wrongs and to regain his former leader status.

Technical components of the production are excellent including Joel David’s authentic set design, which is enhanced by Leigh Allen’s lighting, Jackie Gudgel’s beautiful period costumes, and Cricket S. Myers’ sound design, using drums to build the tension as well as accompanying scene transitions.
Under the superb direction of Wilson Milam, who keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, each member of this extremely talented ensemble delivers a mesmerizing performance, servicing every beat of Fazakerley’s fascinating story.

Odyssey Theatre
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Run: Tuesday – Saturday: 8 pm
Sunday: 2 pm
Closing: Sunday, May 3, 2015
Tickets: $25-$30
323.960.5770 or
plays411.com/corktown

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