The Year of the Hiker>Press
Back Stage West Burbank Leader
Los Angeles Times CurtainUp.com
Park LaBrea News

Maddy Award - Best Actor - Josie DiVincenzo
Maddy Award - Best Actor - Barry Lynch
Maddy Award - Best Actor - Shawn Savage
Maddy Award - Best Director - Sean Branney
Honorable Mention - Back Stage West - Best Production

***CRITIC'S PICK***
The Year of the Hiker

Returning home is at the root of John B. Keane’s penetrating study of a family deserted by its globe-wandering patriarch without portfolio, the development of the family’s coping powers, and the emotional hoops each member must jump through when the reprobate returns, 20 years later, seeking forgiveness. Barry Lynch plays The Hiker with panache and humor tempered by deep sadness and regret in the character’s need for redemption before he dies.

The wounded Kate (a lovely Rebecca Wackler) has numbly accepted her sorry lot, surrounded by her three children: Joe (strongly essayed by Shawn Savage), the eldest, who undertook paternal duties at 12, relinquishing his own needs; Simey (Zack Gold in a disarmingly rakish performance), a philandering charmer with a selfish streak, who’s about to become a veterinarian, if he stays dry; and Mary (Amanda Deibert), the baby who precipitated The Hiker’s disappearance and who’s off to marry her doctor, Willie (Robin Leabman).

Ruling the roost as ma and da, keeper, adviser, and woman for all seasons is Josie DiVincenzo, splendid as sharp-tongued, lovingly protective Aunt Freda, who is the centerpiece of the lively action, jealous of her position and anxious about maintaining it.

There are big questions here and a houseful of dissident family members representing differing points of view about love, duty, responsibility, forgiveness, redemption, and the extent to which their choices reflect their in-bone reaction to the father’s abandonment; the embarrassment his absence has caused them in the community; the turns their lives have taken because of, or in spite of, their history; and their need to go on regardless. Keane dramatizes these huge questions in a perfectly palatable way, mixing humor and tragedy, laughter and tears, without preaching or forcing a point of view. All this is superbly directed by Sean Branney, who consistently inspires his terrific team to re-inspire the text and the audience equally.

Reviewed by Madeline Shaner for the Back Stage West


***CRITIC'S CHOICE***
The premise is familiar, but the play succeeds by delving deeply into everyday life.

Unrequited love burns bright in John B. Keane's "The Year of the Hiker," the compelling drama now at Theatre Banshee in Burbank. Director Sean Branney has cornered the L.A. market on tragicomic Irish ensemble pieces, and this latest installment confirms that he and his cast of regulars can create a living, breathing world dense with emotional history in a matter of minutes.

Twenty years ago, the restless "Hiker" Lacey (Barry Lynch) abandoned his wife, three children and County Cork farm for the open road. Now, the day his daughter (Amanda Deibert) is to be married, he staggers back into his family's broken lives in search of forgiveness and a place to die. But the family, who've spent two decades gritting their teeth as folk turned their missing dad into both legend and punch line, aren't keen to welcome back the prodigal.

Somehow the Irish never require an original premise to break your heart, and Keane's story avoids predictability even as its truths feel painfully familiar. Lacey's wife, Kate (Rebecca Wackler), has remained a soft-spoken girl, still attached to a man who shamed her for life. His elder son, Joe (Sean Savage), became the man of the house at 7, burying his dreams -- and his ability to feel -- under the mantle of responsibility. Younger, wilder Simey (Zack Gold) has let his father's outlaw image take dangerous hold in his mind, and their confrontation is one of the evening's strongest.

To be fair, the production has its flaws. Accents often drift across the Atlantic, and you can wonder if you're in Cork or Boston. And Branney sometimes turns the volume up to melodrama when a whisper might have more effect.

Keane, whose play "The Field" was adapted for the screen by Jim Sheridan, has an endless ear for humor, poetry and longing, and the cast does a terrific job of immersing us in this remote rural world bursting with soul.

Savage is particularly good, gradually revealing just how devastated his character has been by his father's absence. And Lynch, as the Hiker, conveys both strength and anguish. "The Year of the Hiker" reminds you how satisfying the simplest story can be when it mines the rich terrain of everyday life.

Reviewed by Charlotte Stoudt for the Los Angeles Times


Forlorn Irish Father Hits the
Road in ‘The Year of the Hiker’

It's hard to forgive a man who has abandoned his family for a vagabond lifestyle devoid of responsibilities. Is it better to unburden oneself of the self-poisoning ill will that inevitably comes with shouldering ancient grudges, or is there silent strength and selfassuredness in the act of hanging on to old hurts lest we suffer further wounds at the slippery hands of forgiveness? And what if the offender is your father or husband? Irish playwright John B. Keane tackles the subject of familial forgiveness and compassion in "The Year of the Hiker", a play that the Burbank-based company, Theatre Banshee, takes on with ease.

Much of the early drama hinges on an offstage character aptly nicknamed "Hiker" Lacey (Barry Lynch). At the outset, we learn that Lacey skipped town on his wife and three children 20 years ago, choosing wandering freedom and solitude over house and home. For two decades, the family he left behind has been surviving without him, but bad feelings have clearly been harbored. Kate (Rebecca Wackler), Lacey's abandoned wife, is getting along with the help of her sister, Freda (Josie DiVincenzo), a no-nonsense woman who runs the house alongside a somewhat sheepish Kate. Then there are Lacey's kids, who are now grown adults. Joe (Shawn Savage) is the eldest and has vivid memories of his father that sometimes bubble up in the form of rage. The other kids, Simey (Zack Gold) and Mary (Amanda Deibert), were babies when dad left, so both are left with a more faceless brand of anger that isn't as shaded and nuanced as that of Joe. Nonetheless, everyone pretty much hates dad from a safe distance, until he hikes right back into their lives on Mary's wedding night. Needless to say, tempers flair, regrets are voiced and poignant moments filled with hatred and love are shared.

Keane has written a play full of resonance, with some problematic points near the end. There's a sharp turnaround in many of the characters, who go from despising the Hiker to nearly worshiping him by play's end. Granted, the point here is that life is short and anger not all that useful, but many of the character transformations are so abrupt that authenticity is compromised. Nonetheless, the actors show up with striking performances. Lynch is a shoo-in for the title role; he's sulky and self-pitying without being overly so and it's easy to feel sorry for him despite his sin of absenteeism. Wackler puts up her dramatic dukes and lands a total knock out when her character finally speaks to the man who left her all those years ago. She delves so deeply into her character's pain, there are moments of physical buckling over and shortness of breath — going there night after night is a feat. Savage has the most layered performance of all the siblings, showing us what it looks like when you love and hate a parent with equal measure. Sean Branney directs this emotional rollercoaster with a steady hand, knowing when to play up the comic relief and when to hold the mirror up to nature without worrying about making people squirm a bit.

Reviewed by Amy Lyons for the Park LaBrea News


Digging her character
Burbank actress delves into the emotions of jilted woman in theater troupe’s newest play.
(note: this is a feature article, not a review)

Actress Josie Di Vincenzo’s role in the Irish drama “The Year of the Hiker” is a departure from the normally tough-cookie roles she plays. The play runs through Nov. 30 at The Banshee in Burbank. (Alex Collins/The Leader)
Actress Josie DiVincenzo is digging deep to play a character unlike any she has ever tried in Theatre Banshee’s Irish drama “The Year of the Hiker” by John B. Keane. The Burbank resident usually plays tough-cookie roles, like a cop on “Desperate Housewives” and a tattoo artist on “Friends,” and while her new character, Freda, is strong and willful, she suffers from a broken heart. “I’m excited about the role because I love digging deep and being able to crack up shells within a character that I can relate to in my life, and also I like a good mystery,” she said. “And it’s such a mystery when you first approach a character — the more you dig, the more you want to know, and this character provided that.”

Producers were happy to put Di Vincenzo in the role, said Theatre Banshee co-artistic director Sean Branney, of Glendale, who directs the play. DiVincenzo has been with the company since its first production in 1995, but this role is a different challenge for her, he said. “This role, Freda, she’s tough, she’s carried an enormous hurt throughout her life and the burden of the family on her shoulders,” he said. “Josie brings an enormous emotional range — we see her as funny and tough and loving, and then we see an enormous reservoir of pain.”

DiVincenzo’s character has a real broad arc in terms of where the character starts at the beginning of the play and where she finishes, said Leslie Baldwin, Branney’s wife and co-artistic director of the company and co-producer of the show. “Josie’s portrayal of Freda really travels a vast emotional and psychological journey,” Baldwin said. “Josie handles it absolutely with stunning truth and beauty.”

Daniel Dunn, who has seen six shows at The Banshee, saw Di Vincenzo in “Loyal Women” and “Henry IV.” “If you saw Josie in those, you wouldn’t believe it was the same person,” he said. “She was scary in ‘Loyal Women,’ but in this, she is frumpy and very vulnerable. In her scene with the Hiker, she falls apart. She really displays her range in this.”

Set in the 1960s, the play is about a man who left his family 20 years ago, not for another woman, but for his love of hiking throughout Ireland. He’s returned to the family farm hoping to be forgiven, Di Vincenzo said. Back at home are his wife, their three children and sister-in-law, Freda, who has had to assume the father role as the backbone of the family and disciplinarian. “Her sister was so broken-hearted, Freda really stepped in and raised the children,” Di Vincenzo said. “The oldest child was 5 when he left, and is now 25 years old.” Freda has put her life aside, and never married, because she saw too much heartache her sister endured, Di Vincenzo said. And each character has to look within themselves to decide whether to forgive him, Di Vincenzo said. “His appearance is the antagonist to everyone’s else journey in this play,” she said. “And it certainly cracks open the hearts that decided they were never going to open again.”

What attracted Di Vincenzo to the character, she said, is how Freda starts out so sure of how she feels in one way and then is forced to look at herself and comes eye to eye with her own anger, hurt and denial. “The experience she has in the play — the jealousy and why she’s a spinster — causes her to reevaluate her life and take responsibility for those decisions,” DiVincenzo said. “It’s such a release for the actress playing the character because as an artist you get to live vicariously through that character’s path and, of course, it inevitably opens up avenues you may have not even traveled down within yourself.” The character has also been fun to play, she said. “I let go emotionally,” she said. “This is an emotionally charged play in every sense of Irish drama. Emotions are running. Even when the characters don’t want to feel them, they are feeling them.”

by Joyce Rudolph for the Glendale News Press/Burbank Leader


Take a Hike

John B. Keane's fierce and passionate play gives new meaning to the term "take a hike." Although the title character who has returned to his family after an absence of 20 years gives several reasons for his absence, Keane draws no easy conclusions. It's the complexity and humanity of the character that compels.

The year is 1960 and the place is a farm in County Cork. Freda (Josie DiVincenzo) has always kept house for her sister Kate (Rebecca Wackler) and helped raise her three children, Joe (Shawn Savage), Simey (Zack Gold) and Mary (Amanda Deibert). All the family except Freda go to the church for Mary's wedding to a doctor, Willie (Robin Leabman). Hearing a noise in the kitchen, to her horror, Freda discovers her long-absent brother-in-law, The Hiker (Barry Lynch). He's come home to die but his family can't let him go gently into a good night.

Sometimes The Hiker says wandering is in his soul, the witching call from over the hills and far away. To Freda he says he left because she came between him and Kate. ("Holy people like you should be kept 1000 miles away from love!" ) Although he speaks of how much he missed his wife and oldest son, The Hiker could never find a way to shake the dust of the road from his feet.

To the Irish, he segued from amazement and a resentful admiration into rural myth. His neighbors told time by the Year of the Hiker. This was not necessarily a good thing. Joe loses his girlfriend when she finds out he's the Hiker's son. The weight of public opinion in this small Irish town lies heavy on these people.

Keane honed his ear for dialogue as a village pub-keeper. His intuitive sense of character was informed by the stories he heard over the bar.

The superb Barry Lynch embodies the simplicity and mystery of The Hiker. Shawn Savage grows into the role of Joe, a tragic figure who became a man at seven when his father left. He plays Joe with matter-of-fact realism until the final heartbroken confrontation with The Hiker. Zack Gold plays the ends of Simey, the high-spirited second son who surprises his family by qualifying for a veterinary surgeon and whose glib charm cloaks a monumental selfishness. Rebecca Wackler is the gentle Kate, always intimidated by stronger personalities. Josie DiVincenzo makes a spiky Freda whose bristling energy adds a needed astringent note.

Director Sean Branney never lets the cast go over the top but finds the nuances of rage, repression and yearning so carefully buried for decades. Arthur MacBride designed a lived-in Irish kitchen and Jessica Dalager created the costumes, whose highlight was a wedding gown made of the famous Irish lace.

Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock for CurtainUp.com

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