Charity Randall Theatre

Through September 20
Various times

The unforgettable story of one of WWI’s bloodiest battles is coming to life on stage in the Pittsburgh premiere of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. Coinciding with the momentous centennial of WWI, PICT Classic Theatre brings Frank McGuinness’ engrossing work to the Charity Randall Theatre this month.

One of Ireland’s most acclaimed living playwrights, McGuinness penned the stirring play in 1985. Centered on the experiences of eight Unionist Irishmen who volunteer to serve in the Lewis (Ulster) Division at the beginning of WWI, the story is told via nostalgic flashbacks from the viewpoint of the group’s only surviving soldier (now an unmarried elderly man). Thrown together for training, the soldiers must move beyond the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics as they prepare for the bloodiest English battle of WWI.

Audiences will follow the soldiers, from basic training, deployment and the front line trenches, to going home on leave to the eve of the deadly battle. A climactic moment arises at start of the devastating Battle of the Somme, which took place on July 1, 1916–the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690–during which the Ulster Division suffered massive casualties. Exploring how both the Boyne and the Somme have come to have a significant place in Northern Irish Unionist consciousness, the work embodies McGuinness’s stylistic art. Its central narrative explores themes of class, identity, idealism, aristocracy, homosexuality, bravery and patriotism.

With scenes that shift back and forth between pairs of actors, the play simulates brief flashbacks of the narrator as well as increasing tensions. Conveying the fierce friendship and loyalty among men who must face the “wickedness and wastefulness of war,” the play depicts the horrifying conditions of the battlefront, leaving soldiers to operate out of a muddy disease-ridden trench network that spanned 25,000 miles. Returning PICT director, Matt Torney calls the Battle of Somme “The greatest single loss of life in the history of the Irish-infused British army.”

Staged for the first time in Pittsburgh just about 100 years after the historical WWI events that are authentically portrayed in the play, Sons of Ulster is appropriate for ages 12 and up. Theater-goers will gain a deep emotional understanding of events that changed the course of millions of lives, as well as an understanding of how WWI continues to shape the world today.

PICT’s artistic & executive director, Alan Stanford, chose Observe the Sons because of its timeless significance. For director Matt Torney, who hails from Belfast, Ireland, many of the play’s aspects hit closer to home: “There are huge parallels between the American sense of patriotism and the Ulster sense of patriotism.” While set in a specific place and a politically-charged time in Ireland’s history, audiences in America and around the globe will surely emphasize with many of the play’s universal themes.

Featuring a mix of local and guest actors, Observe the Sons stars Martin Giles, Jason McCune, Justin R. G. Holcomb, Tony Bingham, Dylan Marquis Meyers, Jonathan Visser, Ciaran Byrne, Raife Baker and Byron Anthony.

Born in 1953 in Co. Donegal, the noteworthy Irish playwright and poet Frank McGuinness has been Professor of Creative Writing at University College Dublin since 2007. In addition to Observe the Sons, McGuinness is also author of The Factory Girls, Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me and Dolly West’s Kitchen. He is also critically acclaimed for adapting literary classics, including translations of plays by Racine, Sophocles, Ibsen and Strindberg.

Watch behind-the-scenes videos exploring many aspects of the play and the local production.

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Jennifer Baron

Jennifer has worked at the Mattress Factory, Brooklyn Museum of Art and Dahesh Museum of Art and is co-author of Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania. She also is co-coordinator...