SF Examiner , April 7, 1998
Robert Hurwitt

Bloom is on "Roses' but slow to appear

Irish family drama more accomplished than production "RED ROSES and Petrol" feels like it's running low on fuel in its overly long first act, but just hang in there. The dysfunctional Dublin family drama, which opened Saturday at 450 Geary Studio Theatre, gets a lot more interesting after the intermission.

A first play by Joseph O'Connor - Sinead's older brother and a leading light in his own right of the latest generation of Irish novelists - "Roses" enjoyed considerable success in Ireland and England three years ago. Its West Coast premiere is a co-production of the Berkeley-based Shotgun Players and the newly formed Diaspora Productions, in association with the Irish Arts Foundation.

(Diaspora was founded specifically to bring the work of contemporary Irish playwrights to the Bay Area. The scrappy little Shotgun Players recently moved into its own new theater, in the back of a South Berkeley printing shop, after six years in the basement of a pizza parlor. Its first production in its new home, Christopher Hampton's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," plays through April 19.)

This is, unfortunately, a better play than the production it's being given. O'Connor has created a realistically complex web of tender and hostile family ties as his Doyles gather for the wake to which no one comes. "Roses" may look at times like just another dysfunctional Irish family drama, with dark secrets to be revealed in due time. But its characters have real depth, its flashback- and video-studded structure contains some hidden delights and its secret is more intriguing than you expect.

It's the day of the funeral of Enda Doyle (an engaging Owen Murphy in Janet Martinez's deft video sequences), a librarian at the university. Newly widowed Moya (Esther Mulligan) is trying to keep up appearances, and her dignity, despite the unseemly squabbling of her three grown children, all of whom bear the scars of a less than happy home life.

Medbh, pronounced "Maeve" (Wendy White), the youngest, hasn't been able to leave home. Catherine (Barbara Early, who also plays the young Moya in flashbacks to her courtship), of the bitterly sardonic wit, has returned from New York with stolidly loyal boyfriend Tom (Kevin Karrick, who doubles as young Enda) in tow. Johnny (Diaspora Artistic Director Johnny McMorrough), an emigrant to London, is such an alcoholic basketcase of bitterness that even his return for the funeral is in some doubt.

"We're not very good with relationships in our little clan," Johnny explains at one point. "It's all to do with our difficult childhood." O'Connor exploits his sibling hostilities ( "They fight like cats in a sack, sisters" ) and various family quirks - Moya ladling the deceased's ashes into plastic lunch boxes for her offspring; Medbh and Moya lapsing into Sean O'Casey characters at off moments - with considerable skill. But as funny as much of the first act is, it feels like it's just spinning its wheels.

That, however, is in large part due to Shotgun Artistic Director Patrick Dooley's production. Dooley has framed the play well. Michael Frassinelli's set is a splendidly cramped, low-budget little living room with strategically placed blankets and doilies to cover the tears in the lumpy couch and armchairs, and the pope and JFK featured amid the appropriate clutter of framed family photos.

The video sequences are crisp and clear. Christine Cilley's costumes nicely help define the characters of the family members. But their definition needs more help than that.

Dooley and his cast hadn't managed to make the characters feel like a family by opening night. Though each actor seems to have a clear notion of the general outline of his or her character, there's little sense of the dense emotional subtext of people who've grown up together. Even the accents vary considerably, leading to the unfortunate impression that Moya and her brood are working in four different productions on the same stage.

Mulligan and White create deft sketches of Moya and Medbh in the first scene. Early and Karrick sharply differentiate their brittle Catherine and slow Tom from their courtship as young Moya and Enda. But their dialogue is so lacking in emotional undercurrents, and Dooley's pacing is so flat and undifferentiated, that neither the comedy nor the underlying drama develops as it should. McMorrough comes on so strong as Johnny that he undermines the effect of his best lines.

Dooley and his actors fare better in the second act, as the family waits for the guests that never arrive at the wake - though even that major social slight doesn't register as strongly as it might. It's only in the final scenes - between White and McMorrough and between McMorrough and Mulligan - that the show really pays off. At the end of 2-1/4 hours, you begin to see the beauty and complexity of O'Connor's "Roses."

Oakland Tribune , April 1998
Chad Jones

"There's nothing very remarkable about Irishman Joseph O'Connor's play Red Roses and Petrol. Set in the Dublin living room of a grieving family, the play covers the kind of parent-vs.-child, sibling-vs.-sibling drama playwrights have been parading across stages for centuries.

But there's a reason plays like these are so appealing, especially when done well. We all have families, so there's a certain amount of pleasure in watching other people go through the crises we have suffered ourselves. There's gratification in watching a family even more dysfunctional than our own, and in this respect, O'Connor delivers big time in Red Roses.

O'Connor's funny, poignant drama has received a solid production in its West Coast premiere. The Berkeley-based Shotgun Players have joined forces with San Francisco's Irish company Diaspora Productions to produce the play at the 450 Geary Studio Theatre in downtown San Francisco. This is also the first time the 6-year-old Shotgun Players has transported its fresh, energetic brand of theatre across the Bay.

Celebrated as both a novelist and a playwright in Ireland, O'Connor is perhaps best known here as pop singer Sinead O'Connor's little brother. The fact that the writer hasn't spoken to his famous sister since she went public with accusations of childhood abuse - which he denies - makes the tense family relations in the play all the more interesting.

There's a hint of a plot line here, but the play is mainly concerned with unfolding the complicated relationships among the members of the Doyle family. Enda Doyle, the patriarch of the clan, has just died, and his widow Moya (Esther Mulligan) is left to unravel the secrets her husband kept and to prevent her three grown children from killing each other.

Catherine (Barbara Early), the oldest, has flown in from New York with her new boyfriend Tom (Kevin Karrick). Johnny (Johnny McMurrough) is the prodigal son whose angry relationship with his father has kept him away for years. And Medbh (Wendy White), pronounced Maeve, still lives at home and is uncertain about the path she wants her life to take.

O'Connor has given the Doyles some raging, scream-your-lungs-out fights, but he allows them some wonderful, quiet moments of reflection as well. He even brings the recently deceased father (played by Owen Murphy) back from the grave via a collection of videotapes the family finds and plays throughout the show.

Director Patrick Dooley, who is also the artistic director of the Shotgun Players, keeps the action tight and focused so that even though there's not much dramatic momentum to the story, the two-and-a-half hour play never drags. Dooley's able cast of five (not counting Murphy's viedotaped performance) accomplishes that most difficult of tasks: They capture the 'intimate strangers' quality of a real family.

Especially good is White as Medbh. Her assured, relaxed performance grounds the play and gives it a realistic emotional center. Mulligan's Moya, the brood's mother, should be the emotional anchor of the play, but she's not. Mulligan delivers a few too many wistful monologues to the roof of the theatre for her character to be as emotionally accessible as she needs to be.

The men in the cast add some real fire to the proceedings. The lantern-jawed Karrick as the somewhat simple Tom is able to wring big laughs from the simplest lines of dialogue, and McMorrough brings a fierce energy to the decidedly anti-family Johnny.

On opening night last Saturday, Dooley announced that the Shotgun Players and Diaspora Productions plan to premiere one Irish play a year. Red Roses and Petrol is a strong start to what could be a very exciting annual collaboration.

SF Bay Guardian, April 1998
Brad Rosenstein

The Irish are at it again in this West Coast premiere by the Shotgun Players and Diaspora Productions. Red Roses and Petrol is the first play by Joseph O'Connor, a noted journalist, novelist, and BOS (Brother of Sinead). When librarian and poet Enda dies, his children return home to confront the damage wrought by Da's cruel temper and other family secrets.

If this scenario sounds familiar, it certainly is: the play smacks of every family drama from O'Neill to Miller. All the clichés are here, from the bitter but idealistic son to the mother in chronic denial. O'Connor has suggested the play has more than a little in common with his and Sinead's troubled family life, but as drama both the content and form are achingly conventional.

Red Roses and Petrol is distinguished, however, by O'Connor's lyrical gifts for language and some exceptional performances in this production. Johnny McMurrough is first-rate as the drunken closet-romantic son Johnny, helping to redeem this tired stereotype, and Kevin Karrick does wonderful work as sister Catherine's perennially embarrassed boyfriend. Wendy White starts off promisingly as the tough stay-at-home sister Medbh, but her part trails off, as do several potentially potent threads in O'Connor's script.

Director Patrick Dooley keeps things truthful, but the pace is slow and he seems constrained by the hyper-realistic living room set. There's some nice use of video and a fine electronic appearance by Owen Murphy as the late Enda, but despite a few contemporary glosses (such as a black comic, very '80s fate for Da's ashes), the play seems stuck in the dramaturgy of an earlier time. And one of Johnny's major dysfunctional issues, that Da seemed to have loved his spoiled sister best, isn't just hackneyed: it suggests there was at least one secret about the O'Connor household we probably knew before.