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Irish tragedy 'Skull' stays in your head

STOCKBRIDGE -- Two Irishmen walk into a jail cell. One comes out bloody.

This could be the beginning of a very bad joke or an even worse play, but in fact it's the setup for a genuinely astonishing night of theater. Passionate, heartbreaking, and funny as only Irish tragedy can be, Ron Hutchinson's ''Rat in the Skull" puts us right in the cell with those guys -- one a suspected IRA bomber, the other a detective -- and breaks open not only their heads but their hearts. And ours, too.

The Berkshire Theatre Festival's production combines all the elements required to make a strong play stronger -- skillful direction, expert design, and above all a set of intensely committed, intelligent, and vividly real performances -- to create a truly rare experience. The word gets thrown around too much, but there are times when nothing less will do. BTF's ''Rat in the Skull" is great.

At the center of its greatness stand the two actors whose powerful connection with each other and with the audience gives the production its force. For more than two hours, Jonathan Epstein and Phil Burke imbue every word, every gesture, every glance and shrug and sigh, with life. Together, they are utterly engaged in the play's slow and deadly dance of fury and fatigue. Burke plays the young IRA radical, Michael Patrick de Valera Demon Bomber Roche, and Epstein the aging cop, Detective Inspector Nelson of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. They hate each other; they exhaust each other; they understand each other. By the end, it feels like a strange kind of love.

What makes the evolution of their relationship remarkable is that Hutchinson's language, dense and lyrical and true, holds the love and the hate and the weariness all together, entwined but separate. His story, too, is complex but never muddled. Roche, arrested with bomb-making materials, is being held in a London cell, watched by a young constable (fiercely played by Michael Crane) and then interrogated by Nelson, a seasoned RUC man, in hopes of ''converting" him (the word's religious implications are not accidental) into an informant. Somehow, the constable is persuaded to leave the two men alone, and that's when Nelson, as he freely admits, beats Roche bloody.

But it may not be that simple, as Hutchinson skillfully reveals through a series of narratives that interweave past action with present reflection. Under questioning from a senior British officer, Malcolm Ingram's cynical Detective Superintendent Harris, each man in turn tells a part of the tale. Dennis Garnhum's direction keeps the shifts between past and present razor-sharp, as the men move from the raised metal platform of the remembered cell to set designer Alexander Dodge's gritty, debris-strewn stage. The movement, like the language, clarifies and deepens the tensions not just between Roche and Nelson, but between them and the English cops who despise them both.

Devotees of recent Irish history will note that Nelson's affiliation with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which in 1991 was renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland, dates the play to an earlier, more troubled time. And, indeed, it was written and is set in 1984, when the ''troubles" were boiling over. But its insights are anything but dated. In its thoughtful, searing analysis of sectarian hatred and missed opportunities for healing, ''Rat in the Skull" feels universal. It's a story of Ireland, but more than that it's a story of human beings, wounded and wounding through all time.

It's hard to take, yes, and even harder to forget. But Hutchinson knows how to spin a fine Irish joke out of horror, and Garnhum has pushed his cast to a finely tuned balance of laughter and tears. Like the fluorescent tubes buzzing under the cell's grated floor, ''Rat in the Skull" nags brilliantly at the mind. It irritates. It illuminates. It glows.

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