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Last laugh; ICT produces riveting revival of award-winning 'Da'

Charlie Tynan, 40 maybe, has returned home to the south coast of Ireland for his 84-year-old father's funeral. "Me Da," he always called him. After the services, Charlie sits by a fireplace, sorting out the debris of a long life, what to box, what to burn, "settling up," when who should appear but old Da himself. "Scat," says a wary Charlie. "Out."

But the old man won't stay dead. "What did you think of dyin'," wonders Charlie. "I didn't care for it," says Da. Charlie has to smile. Can't blame me Da for that.

So begins "Da," a Tony Award-winning play by the late Hugh Leonard. It's May 1968, a kitchen, places and times remembered. In reverie, we meet Young Charlie, his mother and Da; Oliver, a childhood pal from their "sappy days"; no-nonsense businessman Mr. Drumm; Da's cheapskate employer Mrs. Prynn; and Mary Tate, aka "The Yellow Peril," a young miss of easy virtue stared at by the homeboys with a mixture of lust and terror. It's at least a partly autobiographical trip down memory lane by playwright Leonard, with homage and purge present in equal measure, its story never far from laughter or tears.

The Irish Classical Theatre Company has a history with this play and its author. Leonard was a neighbor and friend of theater co-founders Vincent O'Neill and his late brother, Chris, in Ireland. Chris O'Neill eventually played all three Tynan generations -- Young Charlie, Charlie Now and even Da in Dublin and elsewhere. The Kavinoky Theatre's 1987 production of "Da" -- with Chris O'Neill and a cast that included Anne Gayley, Saul Elkin and two deceased, legendary actors, David Fendrick and Betty Lutes DeMunn -- is still lauded when theater folk gather. "Da," the play, remains an actor's dream.

Vincent O'Neill directs this latest version, and he admits that the work has been very emotional: Leonard, the village of Dalkey, brother Chris. More laughter and tears.

Old man Da, of course, is central. And it should be no surprise to learn that Gerry Maher, born to play the memorable characters of Sean O'Casey, J.M. Synge and their heir, Leonard, infuses the role with wit, wisdom and wink, a pest, a tease and a blowhard -- his global theories and WWII Hitler rantings worth many a bloodied nose. Then there's that obsequious trait, particularly with authority figures.

This drove Young Charlie crazy: "If you run into me Da with a motor car, he'll thank you for the lift," he would fume. The rubbery, blustery, masterful Maher is full of charm and mischief, and you could argue that old Da just knew instinctively what buttons to push to drive people bonkers. Charley Now learned this too late. "Scat. Out." Won't work. Da will have the last laugh.

This revival is also riveting because of some inspired casting by director O'Neill. Patrick Moltane is Charlie Now, angry here, amused there, amazed that he can't shake Da's influence and incensed that he bought into every half-baked promise: "Is that our ship, Da -- the one you said is comin' in?" Moltane, in the dream or not, is splendid.

Josephine Hogan is the long-suffering Mother, perfect, intense and superbly prepared as always. Newcomer Joe Liolos is a believable, often surly Young Charlie. Kevin Craig as Oliver and Genevieve Lerner as Mary Tate are stellar. Wendy Hall is Mrs. Prynn, Da's would-be benefactor. Doug Weyand, usually a song and dance man, is a commanding Mr. Drumm, Charlie's first boss, an uptight Scrooge, setting impossible standards for life and learning. Excellent.

"Da" is an "Irish play," but it's more than that. Its story is universal -- love, hope, pride, frustrations and shortcomings, big disappointments and little triumphs, all told without nostalgia or large doses of sentiment. Director O'Neill knowingly keeps things grounded.

***

"Da"

WHEN: Through July 1

WHERE: Irish Classical Theatre Company, 625 Main St.

TICKETS: $34-$42

INFO: 853-4282, www.irishclassicaltheatre.com