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STAGE REVIEW : Violent ‘Fliight of Earls’ Has a Grim Immediacy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In “The Flight of the Earls,” the latest play at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, the men in the Earl family of County Tyrone are willing to lose it all--their blood and that of their family--as long as Ireland somehow emerges undivided.

The grim sacrifice includes having a son pull a gun on his mother and sister-in-law to keep them from giving away a long-planned, carefully connived assassination plot against a British prime minister.

The prime minister is a target of destruction for having jailed, tortured and even killed dozens of the Earls’ fellow agitators. But he also symbolizes something deeper and far more intangible--the rage the men feel at having lived through decades of fear and hostility.

This San Diego premiere of Christopher Humble’s first play is a bold, tough nut of a story, set in Northern Ireland in September, 1971.

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On one level, there are no surprises, from the conventional structure of the well-crafted plot to the lessons about the high cost of hatred. But now, on the eve of possible war in the Persian Gulf and in the face of continuing strife in Ireland and other countries, the play takes on special significance. The questions about violence may be old, but the answers, if there are any, have yet to be learned.

It’s another gutsy choice for the North Coast, a company that continually demonstrates how a small theater set in an upscale shopping mall is not afraid to take risks and tackle serious issues.

These issues are as serious as it gets.

The father of Michael, Ian and Keith Earl died carrying a bomb for the Irish Republican Army, but not before he passed on his passion for the movement to his sons. The boys’ mother, Kate, does not approve of the killings, which she suspects rather than knows about. And Michael’s wife, Brigitte, is a complete innocent when Michael tries to “protect” her by telling her he is not involved. She believes against all the evidence that he will soon leave the blood bath and take her to the United States.

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Under the taut direction of Olive Blakistone, artistic director of the theater, the non-professional cast compensates for a certain level of amateurishness with intense conviction and respect for the material. Only Ron Choularton as Ian Earl, the most radical and uncompromising of the brothers, commands the stage with a bristling intensity. With a burning delivery, on-target accent and wild, flyaway hair, he makes you believe he’s capable of bloodshed.

The others are simply good to middling, with occasional muddling.

Randall Walton provides a fine foil to Ian as the innocent, naive Timothy Strain, Brigitte’s stuttering brother who incurs the Earl brothers’ wrath when he stumbles upon a secret room in which the bombs are built.

Pat DiMeo evinces cool steel as the mother, Kate. Like her sons, she too is capable of shooting anyone, if she thinks it’s the right thing to do. As Michael Earl, Al Wexo seems passionately torn between his love for his wife and his loyalty to the IRA, but his intensity sometimes flags and loses focus. Carmen Beaubeaux is a pretty Brigitte, passionate and girlish but with a tendency to slip into bathos and sentimentality. Sarah Lang seems uncomfortable both with the accent and temperament of Brigitte’s sister; one feels her disgust for the Earls, but not her attraction and ambivalence towards them.

Resident designer Ocie Robinson turns in another fine set--a solid, plain Irish farmhouse with the warmth of stone and wood, which he lights nicely through the Earl family’s long day’s journey into night. The costumes by John-Bryan Davis are appropriately muted and fitting for the time and place.

On opening night, an Associated Press item called attention to a man, alleged to be a high-ranking IRA member, arrested outside the New Bank of New England in Arlington, Mass. The story said police seized gasoline bombs, handguns, two-way radios, masks and three Uzi submachine guns. It was a telling reminder that the issues brought up by the play are closer to home than one might imagine.

‘THE FLIGHT OF THE EARLS’

By Christopher Humble. Director is Olive Blakistone. Set and lighting by Ocie Robinson. Sound design by Marvin Read. Costumes by John-Bryan Davis. With Ron Choularton, Randall Walton, Al Wexo, Pat DiMeo, Carmen Beaubeaux, Sarah Lang and Casey Hogrefe. At 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays with Sunday matinees at 2 through Feb. 16. At Lomas Santa Fe Plaza, Solana Beach. 619-481-1055.

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