One-person shows actually have two jobs. The first is to tell a captivating story. The second is to make a case for why only one person is needed to tell that story. In “Walking with Ghosts,” Gabriel Byrne — an indelible actor of stage and screen — tries his hand at both, to no avail. The play — a theatrical adaptation of Byrne’s 2020 autobiography — takes a familiar approach: one man tracing the arc of his life, layering universal tragedies such as mental illness, alcoholism and abuse with the specific intricacies of an upbringing in mid-twentieth-century Dublin. In doing so, he reveals existential truths about the human condition, the vulnerability of love and the loneliness of fame. What’s never revealed, however, is a unique or functional point of view about it all. Any chance of this production lifting from memoir recitation to illuminating theatrical experience is squashed by Lonny Price’s artless direction and the design team’s unembellished hand. And when a play’s subject is void of any real color, all a spotlight does is wash it out.
Byrne begins “Walking with Ghosts” with backstory. Or rather, birth story. As is common practice in solo shows, Byrne adopts the voice and cadence of the characters that populated his childhood. The first role he steps into is that of his mother, unwillingly discussing the day of Byrne’s birth: “Oh, don’t talk to me about the night you were born. You nearly killed me…Mother to six of youse I was. Three boys, three girls. You the eldest. Six was a small family for that time. Poor Mrs. Brown beyond in Crumlin had 22 children. Women used to say the only holiday they got was going up to the maternity hospital to have a baby.” That last quip is the first of many punchy one-liners that establish both the humor and melancholy that carried Byrne through his working-class childhood in Dublin. It’s a city that haunts him, and one he mourns.
The actor’s journey from the “technicolor fields” of Irish boyhood to the stage of Broadway’s Music Box Theatre — where this production is currently running — is chronicled in vignette chunks. Byrne regurgitates core memories from his 72 years, first in Dublin, then seminary school in England, and ultimately, a storied career in Hollywood. The ghosts referred to in the play’s title are not only people, but moments that linger: the first time he was called upon to assist his mentally ill sister, the first time he acknowledged his excessive alcohol consumption, the first time he was sexually abused by a man supposedly devoted to God. Even as Byrne utters the most painful of memories, his comfort onstage bred from decades of entertaining never leaves him. This ease, however, never transcends to intrigue — and without vested interest in this one particular man and the one particular place he comes from, it is a chore for any audience member to stay engaged. There are, of course, specks of humor. Surprisingly, my favorite came from a crack at Catholic-Protestant tensions: “It used to be a Catholic church, but the Protestants came and took it over, so now it isn’t like a real church at all.”
In competition with the monotony of Byrne’s performance is the unimaginativeness of the creative team’s design. In describing scenery, the script calls for a shattered mirror and golden proscenium. Scenic and lighting designer Sinéad McKenna answered quite literally with a glassy, fragmented backdrop and concentric squared arches that start out, you guessed it, with a gilded flush. Sound designer and composer Sinéad Diskin follows suit with a heavy hand. When Byrne recounts his first day of school, we hear the heavy locomotion of a bus pulling up. When remembering his sweet grandmother, he notes she used to play the piano-key accordion. No worries if you are unfamiliar with said instrument; it is blaring in the background. We inch a bit closer to symbolism with the three seats — the sole set pieces — perched onstage: a desk (which calls to Byrne’s work), a prayer bench (his religious upbringing) and a bar stool (his vice). A lot of negative space is left for the actor to fill, but Price’s proclivity toward having Byrne sit, pace slowly or straight-up stand denies us this.
Just skimming through chapters of the physical version of “Walking with Ghosts,” my imagination conjured a deeper beauty; how rare to experience theater under greater creative restriction than a nonfiction book.
Keeping record of the ghosts that make up a human life is a righteous act. Sharing that record, as Byrne has done here, is an immortalizing one. It allows us, as Northern Irish poet Nick Laird wrote, to find “shelter in each other.” Shelter, however, implies a space of warmth, connection, soul. Unfortunately, in this lusterless staging of “Walking with Ghosts,” there is little refuge.
“Walking with Ghosts” opened at the Music Box Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022.
Review photo: Emilio Madrid.
Creative: Written by Gabriel Byrne; Directed by Lonny Price; Scenic and Lighting Design by Sinéad McKenna; Costume Design by Joan O’Clery; Sound Design and Compositions by Sinéad Diskin.
Producers: Anne Clarke, Mara Isaacs and Neal Street Productions.
Cast: Gabriel Byrne.