When a mother and son reunite after a 33 year separation on May Eve, the past comes back to haunt them. Paste talks with the playwright, Honor Molloy, about her reality-bending play, Crackskull Row, which is showing at the Irish Repertory Theatre through March 26.
Where did you get the idea for Crackskull Row?
Honor Molloy: For me, the inciting incident for even writing the play was an event that happened when I was a kid. The IRA blew up Nelson’s Pillar and my dad brought this thing home that he claimed was the sword. He believed it was the sword for many years, but it was this amazing image to me, even as a child. I thought it was such a cool thing to have at home, and we felt like my father was at the center of history. A kind of naughty history, because it was really a subversive act. I always thought it was an act of performance art in a way, because I learned stuff about the event and the night during my research. These guys didn’t like Lord Nelson on O’Connell Street, so they decided to get rid of him for the 50th anniversary of Easter Rising. They did. They had builders, who were excellent with dynamite, and basically that was how they planned it and blew it up. For me, it was a hot image for the Irish nation as well as the father coming home and the sword, actually bringing violence and war into the house.
I think the other thing was that there was humor in it. I feel like Irish Americans, who have been here for a while, look back at Irish history in a serious way. They respect it. They talk about it. They study it. But for me, as a child my father was a comedian. Everything was about subversion. His comedy was about subversive. There was a sense that it was humorous and a taste of wild freedom that these men in their 20s and maybe early 30s were let loose like boys on the playground. They blew up this symbol of oppression. Many people thought it was funny, but many people were also outraged. You’re always going to get that.
What’s Crackskull Row about?
Molloy: It’s a really interesting theatre piece, because it’s not told straight-on in chronology. It’s a memory play, like Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie. This is a twisted, memory play. A grown man looks back through the prism of time into the past and tells the story. It’s filled with nostalgia, but also pain. I’m talking about Glass Menagerie—there’s pain, there’s love, there’s kindness, regret and so many things.
I think the same thing happens with Crackskull. He literally goes to his house and stands outside the framework of the house. He looks through the windows and directs the audience’s attention to the action, which is actually realism. You’ve got the magic on the outside in the 1999 framework. He then looks at his mother, and there’s another moving into another play world within the modern framework. That probably sounds really involved.
Basically, what it is, a man comes home after being in prison for 33 years. He looks in the window and sees his mother is mad. The play is basically her mad imaginings. You see where she is in her state, and he brings some ghosts with him. They converge on the house and take the mother back to 1966, where there is calamity. It’s the night that the father brings home Nelson’s sword. It has some resonance from my life in the action and in terms of history. But it’s beautiful, because we’re telescoping backwards into the past.
He’s been in jail for 33 years, because of the event that happened on that night of the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar.
Was it always your intention that the father and the son be played by the same person?
Molloy: Oh yeah. I always intended on all of the doubling: the mother plays the ghost of the baby she lost, the son Rasher plays the part of himself that stands for himself and goes back to torment his mother, Rasher [the grown-up version] also plays his father. They’re all playing revenants. Masher is the only one who’s solid—so to speak. But I always had that in mind. I always had the silly names (Masher, Basher and Rasher) to establish the Punch-and-Judy kind of feeling. As for Dolly, she’s a doll. She’s an object. That was from the beginning, before I even started the play. I just want it to be organic to the wild story that came out. The other thing about the writing of the play is that I thought I was going to write a realistic play, but it really gave me it’s own structure. The characters started doing their own things, so a lot of that was me mucking about in the murk in the dark and just letting the play in the darkness and the primal story of that play came up itself. I had never had a production of the play. I had a small community theater work on the play in the 2000. It was on the page for a long time. “Who’s he now? How do we do this?” I didn’t know how any of this stuff would work. I just had a sense that it would. It was working with Kira [Simring] and the actors—they cracked it. We were able to figure out more of the play when we moved to Irish Rep. It gave us a larger playground and more resources. It’s so complicated and so many strands of storytelling going on at once with the magic and realism all in the same scene.
It took me a little bit to get into it and figure out what was happening. After I figured it out, everything fell into place.
Molloy: I think also people talk about the play when they’re leaving the theatre. Some people say, “We talked about it for an hour on the ride back home.” I hear people behind me “I think that mother was… Does she deserve it?” It’s just amazing for me. I pretend that I’m nobody and listen in a little bit. It’s a risky thing. People are also outraged. There are different kinds of responses to this. That’s a big learning experience for me. They’re the consumer and they get to have their response to the play. Why did I write the play if I want to organize the responses of the audience? It’s very gratifying in that way too.