Stage Door Review 2019

The Good Thief

Oct 23, 2019

✭✭

by Conor McPherson, directed by Rod Ceballos

Fly on the Wall Theatre, Dora Keogh Irish Pub, 141 Danforth Avenue, Toronto

October 19-29, 2019

Narrator: "I was trying to get out of the rain."

The Good Thief presented by Fly on the Wall Theatre is the finest solo show I’ve seen all year. Not only is Irish author Conor McPherson’s hour-long play a masterpiece but FotWT’s site specific production suits it perfectly. It is also impossible to imagine anyone delivering the this monologue with greater sensitivity to subtext than does David Mackett, who has worked with director Rod Ceballos on several McPherson plays before.

After entering the Dora Keogh Irish Pub and receiving a pint from the real barman, Mackett, known only as the Narrator, launches into his story while standing in the midst of the audience as if someone had asked him about the most important event of his life. We learn that the Narrator had been an enforcer for a Dublin mobster, a job that mostly involved frightening people who hadn’t paid up and sometimes killing them. A bone of contention the Narrator has with his boss is that Greta, who was once the Narrator’s girlfriend, now lives with the his boss who treats her despicably. The Narrator still loves Greta, but knowing that she never stays with one man for long he chooses not to make an issue about her with his boss.

One day he is assigned to frighten a Mr. Mitchell, who is behind in his payments. Somehow, enemies of the Narrator’s boss have been alerted to this plan and are waiting for the Narrator to arrive so they can break his legs. In the ensuing fracas, the Narrator emerges as the only man alive. Noticing that Mitchell’s wife and daughter are in the house and knowing that the criminals’ reinforcements will arrive, the Narrator flees with the wife and child. The Narrator’s attempt to save the mother and daughter from harm is misunderstood by the guards (i.e. the police) as a kidnapping, so that the Narrator finds he is being pursued by both criminals and the guards. With such odds against him it is a wonder that the Narrator has survived to tell the tale.

As we discover at the end, the Narrator is telling about the “incident” more than ten years after it happened. Thus while we get caught up in the action as the Narrator tells it we are learning about these events after the Narrator has had ten years to reflect on them. Mackett captures this situation brilliantly by narrating the tale in an impassive manner as if awed by the inalterability of the past. His descriptions of the frequent bloody violence are as precise and cool as are his descriptions of riding in his car or getting to know Mrs. Mitchell and her daughter.

We first think that this is just a man of violence for whom violence itself is no more intriguing than any workman’s routines. What we come to realize is that the most shocking aspects of the “incident” are the ones the Narrator only alludes to and does not describe. He is not inured to all forms of violence. Some acts shock even him.

We come to see that the harm that has come to innocent people because of his actions still weighs heavily upon him. Telling this tale is an attempt to seek some kind of atonement which he knows will never come.

Mackett conveys all this with the subtlest means. He speaks as if he were oppressed by thoughts that we only gradually come to understand. Mackett’s tone changes when he speaks of the few happy sections of the story but even then he gives his words a hint of irony. In the end it is a masterful portrayal of a man whose life is imbued with infinite sadness.

McPherson originally titled the play The Light of Jesus but then changed the title to The Good Thief, both titles suggesting that McPherson’s aim is greater that telling a gripping tale of a criminal on the lam. The Narrator is not a thief but an enforcer, yet McPherson links him to one of the two thieves who were crucified on either side of Jesus. The “bad” or impenitent thief asks Jesus to prove he is the son of God by performing a miracle. The “good” or penitent thief has a different point view and says to the other: “And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41, NASV).

It happens, at the moment, that Toronto audiences can see the work of Conor McPherson at two different stages of his career. Girl from the North Country from 2017, now playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre, explores the unhappiness of residents of a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, whose suffering finds outlet in the songs of Bob Dylan. The Good Thief from 1994 is only McPherson’s second play but one can already see in it the theme of the inescapable weight of responsibility for others that carries all through his work. Unlike Girl from the North Country, this early play may lack songs and may have only one character, but The Good Thief as performed by Mackett and as insightfully directed by Rod Ceballos is just as moving in its own intense, quiet way.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: David Mackett as the Narrator. © 2019 Allison Bjerkseth.

For tickets, visit www.flyonthewalltheatre.ca.