Category: Archive

Wee play, long journey

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The Divis Flats, a massive, crowded, multistructure housing project where she was born, one of the six children of Eamonn and Sheila Hughes, had been razed years earlier. However, among the places the raven-haired, blue-eyed actress and writer did manage to find was the modest house she calls St. Jude’s, the home near the Peace Wall to which the Hughes family moved when they were finally able to leave Divis Flats.
Searching out the actual rooms in which she, her parents and her siblings had lived, she encountered a 15-year-old girl whose bedroom was the same room where she had slept and dreamed when she herself was a growing girl wondering what the future might bring.
“We were happy to put Divis Flats behind us,” Hughes, who’s 33, said recently. “It was noisy and crowded, but what we didn’t realize was that the house we moved to, being so close to what they called the Peace Line, was in a way just as dangerous as what we’d known.”
Now Hughes realizes that her family was living in the sort of poverty Sean O’Casey wrote about, but it really didn’t seem all that rough at the time.
“After all,” she said, “everybody was poor, but somehow we always managed to eat. And there were always plenty of children around to play with, if you wanted to.”
Looking back on those days, Hughes realizes that she didn’t always want to play, and that she always felt like an outsider. In fact, she still does.
“My husband and I live in Los Angeles now and I know I don’t look like most people out there look,” she said.
By that, she meant that she isn’t blonde, and that she hasn’t had plastic surgery.
Hughes’s husband, Ian Harrington, is an Irish American. Also 33, he’s worked in TV and film production. With his wife, he runs That’s Us, a small company that is one of the producers behind “Belfast Blues,” a one-woman show that played in Los Angeles, London and Chicago before arriving at The Culture Project on Bleecker Street.
Coming to Manhattan was something of a risk, as it always is, but in the case of “Belfast Blues,” it appears to be working out, since the reviews have been positive and the audiences have been responsive and enthusiastic.
The future that the adolescent Hughes dreamed about when that West Belfast bedroom near the Peace Line was hers started to take shape when she was 13. The late television director George Schaefer came to town searching for children to play roles in a projected NBC Movie of the Week he was planning.
The show was “Children in the Crossfire,” and it had a budget big enough to allow for the importation of at least a few authentic children from Northern Ireland, youngsters for whom life in an urban war zone, with the sounds of gunfire and explosives heard daily, was all they’d ever known.
Hughes, who has huge, radiant blue eyes, was selected for the film, which meant a brief trip to Hollywood and a taste of living in Los Angeles.
Hughes knew early on that she would leave Belfast and seek a life elsewhere, and she’s realistic about the reasons underlying her decision.
“Even when I was very, very little,” she said, “I really didn’t enjoy being there. I loved my family, and the people there we incredible, but as a person, I didn’t really fit in there, and I always knew that I’d end up somewhere else. I don’t know why, but I always knew.” She smiles sadly and adds a final comment. “There are those who leave and those who stay.”
Even with five siblings, Hughes, looking back on her childhood, describes herself as a loner. “I was never a member of a wee group,” she said. “A lot of children become part of a wee clique, but I never did.”
Hughes’s decision to relocate to Los Angeles was influenced by Schaefer, whom she describes as “the kindest man I’ve ever known,” and who kept in touch with her long after “Children in the Crossfire” was finished.
Schaefer suggested that when the time for college arrived, she might consider UCLA.
“He told me that if I managed to get accepted, he could keep a wee eye on me,” she said.
The actress wants it understood from the outset that the director didn’t pull any strings on her behalf.
“There was no favoritism,” she said emphatically. “I did all the work, and he’d always told me it was a great school, and he suggested I apply there. People I knew were applying all over the place, but I applied to just the one school, UCLA.”
At 18, five years after “Children in the Crossfire,” Hughes relocated to Los Angeles.
“I stayed in touch with George Schaefer until the day he died,” she said. “In fact, I was with him the day before he died, in September of 1997.”
Schaefer, of course, was one of the most respected and admired directors in TV, and was responsible for, among other things, many of the finest productions of the Hallmark Hall of Fame series.
On the morning of the New York opening of “Belfast Blues,” an actor friend of Hughes phoned her from Dublin to wish her well.
” ‘I can’t believe where you are,’ he told me,” she said. “I said I couldn’t believe it, either, being in New York with my play. He asked me how I felt and I told him I felt really, really good about it, because I felt really good about the journey.”
Hughes feels that all the people with whom she’s dealt on the road to “Belfast Blues,” including the show’s original director, Charles Haid, the current version’s producer, Anjelica Huston, and the actress Carol Kane, who is listed as “contributing director,” have been, as she puts it, “amazing, every single one of them.”
Hughes’s philosophy in life is simply sated. “I always want to live with a certain amount of grace,” she said, “and always honesty.”
Has she achieved her goals with the production on Bleecker Street? I bloody well hope so,” she said, “because that’s the philosophy of the play, as well. It’s a simple truth. Anjelica Huston told me that the desired thing was to be simple, truthful and honest.”
Hughes’s current, ongoing run with “Belfast Blues” isn’t the first time she’s appeared on a New York stage. In January 2001 she was part of the cast of a production of Anne Devlin’s “Ourselves Alone” at the Producer’s Club.
In the play, written by the daughter of the late labor leader Paddy Devlin, Hughes was Frieda, whom the author referred to as “one of three ordinary Catholic women whose lives were altered irreparably by events beyond their control.”
“Ourselves Alone,” which is the literal translation of Sinn F

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