By Joseph Hurley
In the midst of planning his company’s 2000-2001 season, Ciaran O’Reilly, producing director of the Irish Repertory Theatre, took time out to ponder some of the things that have pleased him in the organization’s recent past.
"I’ll always be glad that we were in a position to give Nancy Marchand her last really great stage role," he said without hesitation.
Marchand, a beloved and versatile star, most recently a cast member of HBO’s popular series "The Sopranos," who died a few weeks ago after a long battle with lung cancer, played the imperious Lady Bracknell in the Irish Rep’s production of Oscar Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest" three seasons ago. The Rep gave her one last time to shine onstage, and shine she did.
"And I’m glad," the robust and affable O’Reilly added, "as well that we got Tony Walton to direct it." Walton, better known as one of the theater’s best set designers, both designed and directed "Earnest" for the Rep, and then, a season later, did the same for George Bernard Shaw’s "Major Barbara."
"Another thing I’m happy about is that we revived Jerome Kilty’s ‘Dear Liar,’ so that Donal Donnelly and Marian Seldes could play Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell," he added. "And the chance to present Frances Sternhagen as Mary Tyrone in ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night.’ "
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And it goes without saying that O’Reilly and his partner, artistic director Charlotte Moore, are thrilled with the long and mainly sold-out run of Sebastian Barry’s "Our Lady of Sligo," which marked a genuinely triumphant off-Broadway debut for Irish star Sinead Cusack, repeating a difficult and complicated role with which she had scored earlier in London, Dublin, and on tour around England.
"Sinead was a joy in every way, start to finish," O’Reilly said, "but the situation wasn’t always easy, getting an extension from the unions, and all that sort of thing."
As part of the arrangement by which Actors’ Equity allowed the Irish Rep to extend the run of "Our Lady of Sligo" an additional four weeks, constituting a run which ended with the Sunday matinee of July 2, the organization on West 22nd Street will be required to take one, and perhaps two productions to London or Dublin, or possibly both cities.
One of them might well be "Dear Liar," with Donnelly and Seldes repeating the roles which brought them so much acclaim here in New York.
"Don Juan" on deck
The Irish Rep’s warm and welcoming space at 132 West 22 is strangely silent now, since the closing of "Our Lady of Sligo," but it won’t stay that way for very long. The company has scheduled a brief late-summer revival of "Don Juan in Hell," the seldom-performed "extra act" dream sequence from Shaw’s "Man and Superman."
First performed on its own in the early 1950s, staged with four actors in formal attire, "reading" from scripts on lecterns, the event was made famous by a group of actors billed as the First Drama Quartet, and made up of Agnes Moorehead, Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton and Sir Cedric Hardwicke.
In the Irish Rep revival, which goes into rehearsal on Aug. 1, with a performance schedule starting on Aug. 15 and concluding on Sept. 17, the cast will include Celeste Holm as Donna Anna, Fritz Weaver as Don Juan, Donal Donnelly as the Devil, who will, no doubt, remind audiences of Shaw himself, and James A. Stephens as the Statue of the Commander.
Stephens, in a role played earlier on by Hardwicke, is probably the least familiar name in the Rep’s "quartet." British by birth, Stephens gave a good account of himself on the same stage this past season, playing a crusty, hard-bitten old Irish farmer in the company’s revival of a 1950s Abbey Theatre hit "The Country Boy."
Following the run of "Don Juan in Hell," the Rep will revive Behan’s "The Hostage," with rehearsals penciled in for September and an opening night to be scheduled in early-to-mid October. O’Reilly has a clear-minded attitude toward the Dublin writer’s most successful stage work.
"We’re probably going to want to be careful about the topical references," he said. "Some of them may be a little dated or a little obscure by now."
O’Reilly and Moore have been producing plays under the Irish Repertory Theatre ‘gis for more than a decade, and they’ve had their theater, carved from a long-disused warehouse for chemicals and pharmaceuticals, for about half that time.
Before they obtained their own space, the Irish Rep displayed the habits of a hermit crab, moving from theater to loft to auditorium as needed, providing very good work in spaces mainly around the West Side in the 20s and 30s, in a host of locations some of which are no longer on the theatrical map.
An attraction a bit further off in the Rep’s future is a fresh adaptation of Wilde’s "The Picture of Dorian Gray," which they’ve commissioned from director Joe O’Byrne, who adapted Patrick McCabe’s novel "The Butcher Boy" into a two-actor play, "Frank Pig Says Hello," which was one of the first things the Rep booked into its own theater.
Somewhere in the company’s stratosphere is actor and director Charles Nelson Reilly’s autobiographical show, "The Life of Reilly," which will soon try out on the West Coast. There is, to be sure, as there always is in the theater, an element of speculation concerning anything beyond what’s immediately at hand.
O’Reilly, who’s 41 and endlessly forgiving, is one of seven children of Patrick O’Reilly a longtime member of the Dail from the town of Virginia, Co. Cavan. "Basically, he was a farmer," O’Reilly said, "and he had a flax mill. Sometime in the ’40s, he got involved in politics and ran for parliament under his own independent party, the Farmers’ Party. He wanted to see that farmers were represented better than he felt they were. He thought that De Valera had no sympathy at all for them."
The elder O’Reilly served for 33 years, first as an independent, then from Fine Gael.
Patrick O’Reilly died in 1994 at age 86. His wife, the former Maureen Matthews, died last year at 81.
O’Reilly is fond of claiming that he co-founded the Irish Repertory Theatre with Moore in order to provide himself with employment. Even if the joke is partly true, he worked a great deal, from the very start, first at the Abbey in Dublin, and then, after making the leap to New York, at such venues as the Irish Arts Center, not to mention an unfortunate Broadway venture, a version of Emlyn Williams’s "The Corn is Green," adapted to the American Southland, with Cecily Tyson playing the schoolteacher and Dorian Harewood as the gifted student she discovers. O’Reilly was one of the boys.
And there have been bit parts in such movies as "The Devil’s Own," "Far and Away," and the Stephen Rea starrer "A Further Gesture."
But the heart of O’Reilly’s life continues to be the Irish Repertory Theatre, which is experiencing reasonably good times through intelligent and responsible producing.
The old standby
And luck. One of the luckiest things ever to happen to the Rep is Frank McCourt’s loosely bound Irish scrapbook, "The Irish and How They Got That Way," which, in a modest sort of way, has become something of a cash cow for the group.
"The Chicago company ran for about a year," O’Reilly said, "and, along with a second company, a touring company, it served to get us out of New York and known a bit elsewhere. The touring show played Boston, San Francisco, Detroit, and Philadelphia, among other places. The Chicago papers, in particular, seemed pleased by the fact that that particular company was locally cast out there, since there’s abundance of talent in that city."
If things ever get tight on West 22nd Street, the Rep can always drag out McCourt’s scripts, give the actors a call and give "The Irish and How They Got That Way" another little canter around the track.
"I can see that as a possibility," O’Reilly said as he himself trotted off to attend to a few problems having to do with "Don Juan in Hell."