Malibu Playhouse Chimes in with ‘Belfry’

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Michael Hyland and Rebekah Tripp rehearse a scene from “Belfry” in the belltower where the play takes place.

“Cead mile failte!” This Gaelic phrase means “One hundred thousand welcomes,” a fitting invitation to audiences for the Malibu Playhouse’s newest production, “Belfry.”

Written by Irish playwright Billy Roche, “Belfry” is set in the small town of Wexford, Ireland, where a mild-mannered church sacristan falls in love with another man’s wife, opening up a world neither had ever experienced.

“There is a purity to the sound and language of Irish writers,” says Veronica Brady, the play’s director. “And Billy Roche perfectly captures that cadence and soul in his characters. I think you must have to be very Irish to absorb the stories that these playwrights translate onto the stage so well. Billy’s characters are an amalgam of the people he knew growing up. In a way, he never left Wexford.”

“Belfry” is the third in a trilogy of Roche’s plays set in Wexford. Malibu Playhouse Artistic Director Gene Franklin Smith and the Irish playwright struck up a friendship several years ago when he produced another of “The Wexford Trilogy” at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles. So when he approached Roche about producing a play at the Malibu Playhouse this season, “Belfry” was one of four offered to him. Smith said he knew that “Belfry” was the piece that would be the most accessible to American audiences and would be something “really representative” of what he wanted to do at the Malibu Playhouse.

“Everybody has gone through love relationships that are really miraculous and that really change you,” Smith said. “But then, somehow, it ends, even though something lives inside you afterward forever. That’s what ‘Belfry’ is all about. When we feel something is unlocked inside and brought to life.”

The next duty for Smith was to find a director with the right sensibility to bring the play to life. He tapped local Veronica Brady, who happens to be a first-generation American, with a family who comes from the green hills of Ireland.

“Timing is everything,” Brady said. “I had just finished a documentary project (“Patrick Dempsey: Racing Le Mans” for the Discovery Channel) and I wanted to get back to theatre. ‘Belfry’ was a sweet opportunity to live in that Irish world that is very familiar to me. Religion, drinking and jokes.”

It required someone with the proper ear to bring the play to life. Roche is not the only 20th century Irish playwright to explore his roots. Martin McDonagh wrote his celebrated Leenane and Aran Islands trilogies set in County Galway, where he grew up, and the poetry in all these plays is dark, passionate and very funny.

Brady likened Roche to an Irish Chekov, as someone who captures those small moments that change your life.

“‘Belfry’ has that everyday voice of the small town Irishman,” she said. “It’s a language that has no sense of time.”

Finding her actors was no small task. She took almost three months to cast the play, looking for actors who had a sense of the cultural experience as well as the ability to capture the distinct Irish accent. Brady also had to find working actors who were willing to take on the commitment of traveling to and from Malibu for a rigorous rehearsal period. She said the local community helped.

“Local people have been great about taking these actors into their homes and guest houses for this project,” Brady said. “It’s a big sacrifice considering how far they have to drive to make a living and how little they’re paid. So this is community theatre in the best sense of the word.”

Audiences are sure to be pleased with the set design by Erin Walley. The Playhouse used to be a church and Brady had wanted to highlight “the bones of the building.” Accordingly, the expansive, multilevel set transforms the Playhouse stage in a scope that has never before been used.

Malibu Playhouse’s production will be the West Coast premier of “Belfry.” Smith sees it as a testament to the poetry of everyday experience. “It’s very funny with a lot of sadness,” he said. “A perfect balance.”