SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va., July 14, 2016 – As I was doing background research prior on Ronan Noone’s nearly new play, “The Second Girl,” I suddenly recalled the opening line of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”:
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’; but that ain’t no matter.”
That sentiment certainly pertains to “Second Girl,” now being performed in repertory at the Contemporary American Theater Festival here. If you take in this play, it certainly does help if you have more than a passing acquaintance with Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical drama “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” But if you haven’t, “it ain’t no matter,” though you may occasionally miss some a reference here or there.
“Long Day’s Journey” explores 24 hours in the life of the tragically dysfunctional Tyrone family—a thinly disguised version of O’Neill’s own messy, extended family—as they spend an August 1912 day in together in their summer cottage on the Connecticut coast, busily waging existential battles against one another as such families often do.
Similar to the real-life O’Neills, the Irish Tyrone family is led by paterfamilias James Sr., a well-known, reasonably well-to-do actor who chose a comfortable but hardly distinguished career of dramatic hackery by performing a popular character in a popular play for most of his professional life.
The remaining major players in “Long Day’s Journey” include James Senior’s drug addled wife, Mary; his older son, James Jr., also an actor but on the decline largely due to spending too much time with the bottle; and Edmund, the younger son (and Eugene O’Neill surrogate) Edmund, who has his own issues, which prominently include an active case of TB.
Ronan Noone employed “Long Day’s Journey” as a springboard to create “The Second Girl,” fleshing out and re-imagining a “downstairs” counterpart to the “upstairs” Tyrone family in O’Neill’s drama.
Similar to the time-compressed action in “Long Day’s Journey,” the plot of Noone’s play unfolds within a roughly 24-hour time period. The bridge between the two plays, conveniently enough, is Cathleen, the Tyrone family’s “second girl,” a “summer maid” who makes a brief but key appearance in Act III of O’Neill’s play.
In Noone’s “Second Girl,” Cathleen (Cathryn Wake) is joined by her aunt, the Tyrone’s cook, Bridget (Jessica Wortham) and the family’s mechanic and chauffeur, Jack Smythe (Ted Koch). (The latter pair of characters are mentioned in O’Neill’s play but never appear on stage.)
The two women are natives of a highly repressive and still English-ruled Catholic Ireland, as we readily discover listening to their heavy, accurate and mostly-understandable Hiberno-English accents. Jack, however, is a Yank and a Protestant to boot, leading to some inevitable tension throughout this roughly 90-minute drama, which is performed without intermission.
The links to O’Neill’s play are subtle but present throughout. From time to time in “Second Girl,” we hear the laughter, the anger and the squabbling of the faint, disembodied, unseen voices in the Tyrone’s dining room above, occasioning numerous offstage interfaces with the below-stairs crew—but primarily with Cathleen. She is being encouraged by the thespians in the Tyrone family to embrace an actor’s life just like their own. In this jolly spirit, this young, previously abstemious servant adopts a bit of the family’s love for the drink as well.
It’s alcohol, alas, that fuels much of the action in this play. As those already familiar with O’Neill’s play know, both alcohol and opiates play all-too-prominent a role in the Tyrone family’s fortunes. So, too, it seems, does a fondness for the drink come to influence the lives of Ronan Noone’s downstairs crew.
While Cathleen is tiptoeing up to an involvement with the bottle, things have been and are still worse for her older counterparts, Aunt Bridget and Jack Smythe. Bridget, we learn, has effectively been exiled to America forever due to what euphemistically used to be termed a “youthful indiscretion” in earlier times. We won’t spoil things by giving the reason why. But if you know just how medieval the Irish still were back in 1912, you can probably guess.
Bridget is in many ways the central character in this play, not Cathleen. Bridget, after all, has experienced the ruinous downside involved with youthful innocence and the foolishness trusting a man’s word a bit too much. As the play progresses, despite her own obvious failings, Bridget tries to warn her niece away from potential instant replays of her own serial disasters. But as is most often the case with rising generations, Cathleen dismisses her Aunt’s advice with youthful arrogance and bravado. But learning time comes soon enough.
Jack has already experienced his own alcoholic dark night of the soul, having fallen off the wagon relatively recently and having lost nearly everything in the process of his recovery. He’s sincerely reformed now, wants to strike out on his own to form a new business. Most importantly, wants Bridget to marry him and come along on his new adventure—and stop nursing the bottle as well.
But Bridget is tormented by her Irish demons and the guilt she should have left behind. Worse, although she does evince a romantic interest in Jack, well… he is a Protestant after all, even though he cheerily offers to convert if that will help.
Noone’s play achieves an interesting balance between the social classes; clearly implying that substance abuse does not discriminate on the basis of social class. Noone also explores the tentative way each character deals with short and long-term personal disasters—often by opening up another bottle.
“Second Girl” is a play that comes across like some languid French movie where nothing much appears to happen on the repressed surface while a great deal is going on beneath. One must watch for the subtle, often guilt-driven and always underplayed responses that could be missed without paying careful attention, something that on more than one occasion becomes wearying.
There are many funny scenes in this relatively light and approachable drama, and there are some suitably tense moments as well, all of which are crisply directed by Ed Herendeen.
But much of the talk is this play seems mundane and aimless and occasionally uninspired. Perhaps that’s the lot of those who dwell downstairs who in many ways, channel the meaning of their lives vicariously through their “betters” living upstairs. This very ordinariness, however, does not always keep the audience on the edge of its collective seat.
I should note I’ve become enamored of another flavor of Irish play that’s far removed from Yeats’ shimmering Celtic Twilight. Typical of today’s more modern and less reverent approach to Irish drama is a play like Martin McDonagh’s deeply subversive “Beauty Queen of Leenane” (1996), a moving, often hilarious drama set in rural Ireland that suddenly takes a nasty, vicious U-turn the audience never fully expects.
Perhaps I was looking for something like this shocking U-turn approach in “Second Girl.” Certainly, the required Irish-Catholic repressiveness is there, lurking like an evil deterministic spirit that will never allow an Irish character to achieve true human happiness on this mortal coil. But, unlike McDonogh’s madwomen, Noone’s guilt-driven characters despite their serious ultimately decide to remain civilized despite their serious personal issues. This makes them admirable indeed. But it also renders his characters rather less interesting than McDonagh’s deeply disturbed female leads.
Whatever “Second Girl’s” ultimate merits, most attendees of last weekend’s performance will likely agree that the trio of performers in this production are well deserving of an enthusiastic hat tip.
Jessica Wortham’s tragic, neglected and largely abandoned Bridget soldiers on bravely throughout, despite her obvious weaknesses and faults. She’s the very model of a good but deeply repressed Irish woman rendered touchy and brittle by familial, societal and religious abuse. Hers is as well-rounded a portrayal of such a character as you’re likely to see on stage.
By contrast, in the lighter role of Cathleen, Cathryn Wake carries with her all the brightness, carelessness and know-it-all confidence possessed by flaming youth of all genders and all eras. Given the immediate contrast between the time-tested Bridget and the willfully naïve Cathleen, we sense right away that the latter will soon confront her Rubicon. But, rather admirably, Cathleen, as portrayed by Wake, is mostly able to shake her setbacks off as she begins to bloom in a brash new country where, with the right attitude and “gumption,” even a horrendous mistake made today can still lead to a promising sunrise tomorrow.
As Jack, Ted Koch generally lands between Bridget’s and Cathleen’s two extremes and often tries to serve as peacemaker. An American, Jack knows when he’s screwed up and acknowledges it. But he also believes he can redeem himself if he gets serious, which is exactly what he does. Koch’s forceful but sympathetic portrayal of Jack makes him an interesting touchstone for Bridget, whose experiences have never included such an option; and Cathleen, who finds this notion of instant, American-style redemption and re-invention most attractive.
A final shout-out goes to Kris Stone for his claustrophobic but picture-perfect set of a turn-of-20th century downstairs kitchen complete with a simulated but still functional coal-burning stove, running water and ice box. Loved it.
Duly noted: My esteemed spouse Fran—who was actually born and raised in Dublin before emigrating from Ireland to America—disagrees to some extent with my iffy opinion of this play.
Some 25 years ago when I was the theater critic for a Northern Virginia community newspaper chain, our frequent disagreements on the merits of various dramatic performances led us to start writing reviews jointly, using a Point-Counterpoint, Siskel and Ebert-style approach. To our delight and surprise, readers and actors loved it, and we actually won a 1992 Washington Dateline Award for our joint efforts. That’s at least one of the reasons why I have to take Fran’s opinion seriously on this play. (You know the other one.)
Fran thought “Second Girl” was at times too reliant on the almost autonomic American love for the Irish gift of gab. Yet she also felt quite deeply that Noone’s female characters, particularly Bridget, were completely authentic and spot on in time and place. Ergo, we’ll go back to the future with and issue a joint split opinion:
Terry’s Rating: ** (Two out of four stars)
Fran’s Rating: ** ½ – *** (Two and one-half stars and maybe three)
Details for CATF 2016:
When: All the plays we’re reviewing here are continuing in repertory through the end of this month. As in previous years, matinee and evening performances are held from Wednesday through Sunday throughout the Festival. CATF 2016 opened last weekend and wraps on Sunday, July 31, 2016. For dates and details, including how to get there, where to stay, etc., visit the CATF website.
Tickets: Single ticket prices are $62. Four-show and five-show discount packages (Rep Passes) are available, ranging from $112-255. Additional ticket savings are available for military personnel and families (as part of the Blue Star Theater Program), students, seniors, patrons 30 and under, and West Virginia residents. We’d note that while single tickets are often available, you’ll want to check availability the moment you finish this preview article. That’s because those plays that start to develop a buzz (one or more often do) will start selling out fast as the word spreads.
If you’re in the Shepherdstown vicinity, you can purchase tickets directly through the Theater Festival Box Office, open off-season Monday to Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT. Otherwise, call 800-999-CATF (2283), or visit CATF’s online box office.
Social media connections (#CATF) can be made at twitter.com/thinktheater and facebook.com/CATFatSU.
Important Note: If you plan to hang out in the Shepherdstown area for a couple of days to take in most if not all of the plays, be sure to nail arrangements down now for your overnight stay and for dining options. While Shepherdstown has a surprising abundance of rooms and dining choices, a lot of people are in town for the festival and dining reservations, in particular, are a must.
If bookings prove tough, there are additional dining and hotel options in nearby locales such as Charlestown, West Virginia, to the east and a few options in Martinsburg and Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, to the west.