In Corrib Theatre’s Hurl, conflicts over immigration and race literally play out on the pitch of a rural Irish village. Led by the best one-two acting punch I’ve seen so far this season from co-leads Cynthia Shur Petts and Clara-Liis Hillier, it’s a well-timed shot of Irish theater whiskey sent over to warm Americans during our own new ICE Age.
In Irish playwright Charlie O’Neill’s fictional 2003 story, a group of immigrants from far-flung lands (Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Nigeria, Cuba, Vietnam, Argentina, inner-city Dublin), seeking to forge a community spirit, assemble to play a centuries-old Gaelic sport distantly resembling lacrosse or field hockey. Initially rebuffed and discouraged by Rusty (a sublimely smarmy Petts), a local sports official, they finally manage to persuade a defrocked priest, Lofty (a sharp, unsentimental Hillier) to coach them in a village team that will compete against other community teams in a national amateur league.
At the outset, he’s “banjaxed” (drunk) and they’re disorderly, but if you’ve seen anything from Hoosiers to Bad News Bears and so many others, you pretty much know the standard sports-inspirational story that ensues: motley crew of underdogs takes on the big bad establishment. And you can guess the rest, right up to the climactic Big Game and its Inspirational Halftime Speech.
When O’Neill wrote Hurl, his country’s foreign-born population was in the midst of more than tripling to 17 percent, between 1996 and 2011. As a post-show talk back explained, there were important differences between Ireland’s and America’s experiences with recent immigration upsurges. But both there and then, and here and now, recently arrived immigrants sparked resentment from some native-born citizens. Conniving politicians manipulated fears about “differences,” darkly implying that the new arrivals threatened Our Traditional Way of Life — that instead of contributing vitality and diversity to their new home, “They” were somehow taking something away.
Rusty and Lofty respectively represent resistance to and celebration of racial and national diversity. In a brilliantly restrained and subtle performance from Shur Petts, Rusty, who keeps coming back throughout the show like a bad case of head lice, usually keeps the real reasons for the dispute carefully covert. Onstage here as in real life, most racists and nationalists seldom spell out their real reasons for resistance to change. Still, he’s a little too easy to dismiss as one of those backwater racists, not like us urbane good guys. As too many of us have belatedly learned, racism’s reality is less obvious and more pervasive than most of us well-intentioned theater-goers imagine, extending to our own neighborhoods and even assumptions.
Beyond his relatively thin script ‘s commendable clarity and tightness, O’Neill really scores with his juxtaposition of Lofty’s poetic affection for hurling with the banality of the sport — any sport — itself. Those lyrical passages — the kind Irish writers seemingly pull off best — achieve what Susan Sarandon’s “Church of Baseball” character in Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham did, but many of the talking heads in, say, Ken Burns’ baseball documentary didn’t: convincingly convey sport’s larger emotional significance, without bloviating or sentimentalizing. O’Neill draws Lofty’s character, and Hillier plays it, in a way that makes us believe he’d utter them, and mean them.
The main attraction is the bravura performances by Petts and Hillier, both in cross-gendered roles. They’re abetted by Corrib’s diverse actors, entirely composed of women (playing male roles) and/or actors of color, who seem to have been cast for maximum charm as well as dramatic chops. You can’t help but root for every one of the Freetown Slashers, paced by Musa (James Dixon) and ensemble members Alec Cameron Lugo and Heath Hyun Houghton, as they contend with resistance from some less open-minded “culchies,” a pejorative term used in the play for rural rubes.
Director Tracy Cameron Francis keeps the action moving, but this production — the first outside Ireland — would have benefited from a real choreographer or movement theater director, like say Imago’s Jerry Mouawad, who could have imbued the game action moves with tighter, more varied and believable (if stylized) movement across the artificial-turf-covered floor of southeast Portland’s N.E.W. Expressive Works. Still, the hurley-hoisting actors, who were coached by actual Portland club hurlers, deserve kudos for hitting their many marks with aplomb on opening weekend, while simultaneously nailing their lines, which occasionally got obscured amid the exertion and ever-shifting accents — the eight cast members play 40 roles in 90 fast, tight minutes.
Cameron McFee’s percussive, Irish-inflected sound design complements the action. The program’s helpful glossary and dramaturg Kathy Heining’s historical notes prevent confusion, as does the players’ sportscaster-style narration of the on-field action, a clever device that plays much less contrived than it sounds. (The same can’t be said for the occasional tired expositional device of a pair of slimy Kent Brockman-style TV anchors.) Your imagination easily fills in details like, say, the sliotar (ball), the opposing teams, and pretty much everything else — no easy task in a space without full theatrical accoutrements, only minimal props. We even get to imaginatively enjoy a climactic diving save twice, thanks to a kind of live instant replay.
Long before Colin Kaepernick took a knee or Jackie Robinson first trotted out onto Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, sports have reflected the larger society that contains them. Despite the foreign trappings, we Americans today are unfortunately able to understand all too well what’s really at stake in this play’s contests. Thanks to its spirited performances, Hurl pulls off a double play: it makes sport feel meaningful, and immigration politics both poignant and entertaining. It’s a craic-ing good time.