Written by Tom McEnery
Photos by Tom Lawlor
until Sunday 13th August 2017
Tom McEnery’s Irish forebears settled in California. He resides still on the same downtown San Jose street where he was raised and four generations of his family have lived. Serving for eight years as Mayor, he is credited with leading the rebirth of downtown San Jose and it is a signal honour the San Jose’s McEnery Convention Center is named after him. He has been a friend to Ireland over many years and “often leaves California to visit Ballybunion… for the sunshine”. That pedigree shows that he has an acute awareness of built environments which are undergoing change as a result of altered commercial practices. Ireland, like most other developed countries, has many such towns who for better or worse are trying to handle the change which has often been destructive of a great deal of social life.
It is against that background that this play is set. The time is that of the peace process being driven forward by many including the then President of the United States William Jefferson Clinton. The location is a pub in Ballybunion and the set designed by Vincent Bell is a fine example of a contemporary pub, rural or urban, without much charm. Jackie (John Olohan) is the owner of the pub, a widower who is ever keen to get Ballybunion noticed in the great, big alien world outside. In order to achieve something in the town there is a dysfunctional committee consisting of Jackie, Austin (Damien Devaney), Hannah (Joan Sheehy), Seamus (Enda Kilroy), and Malachy (Frank O’Sullivan). Seamus is the only one of them of which the adjective “youthful” could be applied. They have been meeting a long time with little to show for their efforts. Eventually they hit upon the idea of commissioning a statue of Bill Clinton to adorn the main thoroughfare of Ballybunion. With the peace process moving in fits and starts, with a crackly radio broadcasting the latest twists and turns, there is a parallel series of escapades taking place or not taking place in the creation of the statue. As a separate phenomenon there is a helpful returned American, Jim (Mark Fitzgerald) who is politically well got, who is smitten by Jackie’s daughter Kate (Liz Fitzgibbon).
McEnery combines several conflicting attitudes: the need to bring positive news to the town, the grim determination to remain loyal to the past, its prevalence coupled with changing public attitudes to certain parts of it – Monica Lewinsky features in the crackly broadcasts. How to break out of the cycle of being ignored by everyone is the driving force behind the idea of the statue.
While the importance of the theme of the decline of rural town life cannot be underestimated and McEnery has chosen a witty project in A Statue for Bill Clinton as the focus, the principal characters are weighted too much on the mature side. Their attitudes have a romanticism to the past which is not healthy. The youthful Kate alone punctures it with her realism. Maybe a few less laughs from the mature members of the cast and a few more comic lines for the younger members would create a play that would resonate more strongly. The chronic economic decline of the rural town is what is at stake. A Statue for Bill Clinton puts it centre stage.