Theater Review: The Cambria by Donal O’Kelly

Frederick Douglass’s 1845 voyage to Ireland becomes a richly fictionalized tale of colorful figures and high drama at sea.

In 1845 Frederick Douglass, already a famed abolitionist though not yet 30, sailed for Europe aboard a ship called the Cambria. Fleeing hostile forces in the United States who were making his activities difficult (to say the least), he received a hero's welcome in Ireland from crowds of sympathetic, long-suffering Irish Catholics familiar with his career and his recently published autobiography.

Douglass spent six months in Ireland, finding there the morale boost he needed to continue his crusade. I spent an hour and a half at the Irish Arts Center in New York on St. Patrick's day, getting my first taste of Donal O'Kelly's work. The Cambria concerns not Douglass's time in Europe but the ocean voyage itself. He and director Raymond Keane bring it to life as a richly fictionalized tale of colorful figures and high drama at sea. Embodied by Mr. O'Kelly and Sorcha Fox — both superb actors — these people are by turns amusing, inspiring, and a little scary.

Some of the characters are more faceted than others. Mr. O'Kelly's Douglass, always calm and dignified, is (no pun intended) the least "colorful" of all, the quiet eye at the center of the storm. His power is all in his words, but they are all he needs, some written for him by the playwright, others taken directly from Douglass's own eloquent works. Yet he's not without complexity; sent down to steerage when his first-class neighbor complains about the proximity of a black man, he observes, without sore indignation, "I feel at home among the mishmash of nationalities."

More violent personalities dance around him. A lively abolitionist, given a pitch-perfect American accent by Ms. Fox, is insufferably righteous. Ms. Fox also depicts a delightful little girl who refuses to believe that her new friend "Mr. Johnson" (Douglass incognito) is not a minstrel. She also plays male characters with complete conviction.

The skipper, the rueful son of a slave ship captain, has an evocative and gloriously staged (if perhaps not quite earned) Act Two revelation. A Southern slaveholder, also played by Mr. O'Kelly, makes an effective villain; if I were ignorant of American history I'd accuse the playwright of creating a caricature, but alas, the plantation owner's blind paternalism and cruelty were all too endemic; his descent into seething animal hatred feels both comical and real on a level deeper than realism.

Mr. O'Kelly's language is worthy of the mantle of the great Irish dramatists of the past — warm, poetic, funny, pained, sprightly yet always faintly weighted, but never bitter. "Never been at sea? You must have been mighty contented with your life on land." "Imagine not knowing your birthday." "Beware the Quaker choir ladies."

This play provides one of those concentrated, magical experiences one hopes for every time one takes one's seat in a theater. The Cambria had a limited run through Sunday, March 22 at the Donaghy Theatre at the Irish Arts Center in New York City.