By Jack Holland
In an eerie coincidence, John F. Kennedy Jr.’s New York acting debut was in Brian Friel’s "Winners", a four-character play about a young couple who are very much in love and who on an impulse set out on a journey to an island which ends in their deaths by drowning. Kennedy played Joe, the studious young man who is in love with Mag. Mag, pregnant, persuades him to set out on a boat trip to an island off of the Donegal coast. Joe is reluctant, thinking the adventure unnecessarily risky. But she wants them to do something adventurous. She wants to "dance on every island . . . stay out all night and sing and shout at the moon!"
Though the weather is fine, the couple and their boat do not arrive at their destination. People are alerted. At one point, the narrator says: "The search was continued without interruption for three days."
The bodies of Joe and Mag eventually are found "floating face down" in the water.
The play — which has been described by critics as "bleak" — opened on Aug. 4, 1985 at the Irish Arts Center on Manhattan’s West Side. Admission was by invitation only. The play ran for six performances, closing on Aug. 9. Kennedy’s New York acting debut was described in one magazine as "one of the theater’s best-kept secrets."
Though Kennedy’s previous acting experience had been confined to his student days at Brown University, those who saw his performance were much impressed. Nye Heron, then the Irish Arts Center’s executive director, commented to a reporter:
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"He’s one of the best young actors I’ve seen in years." Heron praised Kennedy’s Ulster accent, saying that it was "specific, right down to a county."
The play was directed by Robin S’x, also a former Brown student. Mag was played by another graduate of Brown University, Christina Haag. Haag went on to study acting at Juliard. Also in the cast was Kevin Breslin, son of columnist Jimmy Breslin.
One of the two narrator’s in the play was played by Terry Donnelly, who this week told a close friend that the experience with Kennedy was a "precious and happy time for her and for all the actors."
The Irish Arts Center which still flourishes, has been the venue for the launching of several successful acting and directing careers. But Kennedy made it clear at the time that he was just dabbling in the theater and had no intention of pursuing it as a career.
According to a report in "People" magazine of Aug. 26, 1985, Kennedy’s mother, Jacqueline Onassis, and his sister, Caroline, missed the show because they were out of town. The magazine also reported that the first performance had been scheduled for a date in April but had to be postponed because Kennedy injured his foot in the gym. In what will be seen as yet another strange coincidence, witnesses reported that last Friday Kennedy was seen entering his Piper Saratoga with a plaster cast around one foot shortly before he took off for the island of Martha’s Vineyard to vanish into the sea with his wife, Carolyn, and her sister Lauren Bessette. It is believed that he had broken his ankle last month while paragliding on the Vineyard.