By Joseph Hurley
When Mickey Kelly learned he would be replacing actor Tom Lacy, who was leaving the original New York cast of Sebastian Barry’s "Our Lady of Sligo" at the end of what was supposed to be the play’s scheduled run at the Irish Repertory Theatre, he said he felt intimidated by the thought of appearing with an actress as celebrated as Sinéad Cusack, whose "father" he would be playing.
What had happened was that, after much negotiation, Actors’ Equity had granted the Irish Rep an extension period nearly as long as the play’s projected run, with the added period ending with this coming Sunday’s matinee performance.
Like Lacy, Kelly shaved his head in order to play "Dada," whom his daughter, Mai, the character played by actress Cusack, describes as having "a continent of skin, an Australia of it," spreading over "his lovely head."
Having joined director Max Stafford-Clark’s much-lauded company, the cast’s sole replacement, Kelly did what actors usually do. He watched the play from a seat in the audience as often as possible, in order to familiarize himself as completely as he could with every detail of the production.
"As part of the process," the gentle, mild-mannered, 52-year-old Kelly said, "I sat and watched about six of the shows, intent on making sure that it would be as easy as possible for me to go into the play in such a way as to make it easy for the rest of the cast, with me as comfortable as possible replicating the blocking, and stuff like that."
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Kelly’s character has just four brief scenes, scattered through the course of the play, as Mai, under the influence of morphine, summons him up in her memory, most of the time wearing a frock coat and a formal hat, just as she recalled him from her childhood.
"I thought I could concentrate on my little scenes and sort of study the blocking the rest of the time without really focusing on the rest of the play," Kelly said. "But I found that every night, as I was trying to cement the line-learning process in my head, I would get caught by something on stage, the sound of a line, the way the light hit the face of an actor. Usually, it took about two minutes, and then I was drawn right back into the performance again. And I kept finding new things in the show every single time, little things that told me things about the character I was about to play, tiny things that somehow hadn’t registered on me before. It was that way right through the last time I watched from the house."
Kelly came to New York in 1972, but not to be in the theater. The native of Draperstown, Co. Derry, came to play Gaelic football. "I came with the Derry football team on tour," he said with a self-mocking laugh, "with the intention of being in New York for six months, then traveling to South America, and going around the world and then returning to Ireland. But I never got out of New York."
Kelly is hardly the first Irishman to be seduced by whatever it is about New York that magnetizes newcomers. And he did what a lot of his countrymen have done in order to survive here.
"I worked in construction," he said, "and making good money and having a lot of fun. I ended up enjoying New York."
He also married, had three children, now 15, 13 and 11, went through a divorce, and, along the way, became an actor. Actually, he approached the theater, albeit a bit tentatively, the second year he was here, 1973.
"I was working as a stagehand," he recalled, "helping out building sets at the Irish Arts Center. That was in the days before Jim Sheridan and Nye Herron or any of those people were there. I’d had no theatrical experience at that time, except that I’d played Poobah in a production of ‘The Mikado’ in my high school and had enjoyed it."
Eventually, the Irish Arts Center acquired its present home on West 51st Street, and Kelly got his first assignment on stage.
"They were doing a play called ‘The Flats,’ by John Boyd, a writer from Northern Ireland, and Brian Herron, who is Nye’s uncle, wanted to take off for the summer," Kelly said. He was playing the part of the father in a Catholic family on Falls Road or somewhere, and he asked me to replace him."
So, still in his early 20s, Mickey Kelly went on a New York stage for the first time, playing a family man in his 60s.
Along the way, Kelly developed a one-man show, which he performs when stage jobs are scarce. "It’s basically made up of traditional stories from the North of Ireland, he said. "And a few songs."
The actor calls his solo show "I Know a Wee Spot," which turns out to be the opening line of a familiar song about Derry. "The show is in the form of somebody sitting in his cottage," he said, "inviting people in for the evening."
Kelly’s ability to tell stories, and to sing, came in handy two seasons ago, when he co-starred with Shay Duffin in the McCourt brothers’ "A Couple of Blaguards." Before that, he had been working with the Bronx-based Macalla Theater Company, first in "Rinty," by Martin Lynch, and then in "Paddywack," by another writer from the North, Daniel Magee.
Much of his Manhattan work has been at the Irish Arts Center, notably in Kenneth Branagh’s "Public Enemy," and in a revival of Brian Friel’s "Lovers," in the roles played a couple of decades ago by Art Carney.
Kelly, who had read for the parts of Jack, Mai’s husband, and Dada, before "Our Lady of Sligo" originally went into rehearsal, said he approached the replacement situation with anxiety, but the actual reality has been one of the joys of his career, start to finish.
Many of Mickey Kelly’s reactions to "Our Lady of Sligo" are subjective, and more intense as his connection to Barry’s writing continued.
"My own mother and father died of cancer and I wasn’t there when it happened," Kelly said. "I’d seen my mother six months before she died, but at the very end, I flew to Dublin to meet my cousins for the drive to Derry, which should have taken a couple of hours. But there’d been a storm, and the roads were so icy that the journey took three-and-a-half hours. My mother died an hour before we got there. I knew she had been on morphine, but I never understood what that was like until I saw the way this play deals with that. Every night, I can feel the audience coming to grips with their own personal experiences by their reactions, just as I’m doing it myself with every single performance."
That, after all, is what good theater is all about, in a sense. Like other fine writers before him, Sebastian Barry has harnessed the power of words to come to grips with his own situation, and by so doing, shared his experience with the audiences who see his plays, broadening their own understanding of their own lives. Not to mention the actors, Mickey Kelly among them, who inhabit the roles he’s written.