‘Second Girl’ chronicles Irish immigrants’ struggle
BOSTON — The young women came to these shores by the droves from Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, seeking a better life but in many cases finding only backbreaking work, and almost no life outside that work.
The issues of emigration and immigration are woven throughout Irish culture and have been mined successfully and wonderfully in the past by Irish playwrights such as Brian Friel, with his wonderful “Philadelphia, Here I Come” or even musical numbers such as “The Streets of New York” by the Irish folk group The Wolfetones.
“The Second Girl” is the newest work by playwright Ronan Noone, who himself came to these shores from breathtakingly beautiful County Galway 20 years ago and became an American citizen in 2000. It is a poignant, wry, funny and oft-heartbreaking look at the lives of three servants — two of them Irish domestic servants — doing their best to survive while striving for a better life.
They find themselves working for the Tyrone family of New London, Conn., in August 1912, the same family at the center of Eugene O’Neill’s American classic “A Long Day’s Journey into Night.”
Noone has set his piece in a 24-hour timeline identical to the O’Neill piece, which just happens to be one of the most famous days in American literary history.
The trio of servants find themselves in almost constant pain, not only the physical kind that came from being beaten down by the seemingly endless amounts of work, but the mental anguish of regrets, and personal losses.
Bridget O’Sullivan (Kathleen McElfresh), 32, has been in the U.S. for a decade, and is the “first girl” in the pecking order of servants, and she is both the aunt and sponsor of Cathleen O’Leary (MacKenzie Meehan), who is young (22), pretty, and full of life, engaged to a young man back home and determined to return to him as soon as it makes financial sense.
Jack Smythe (Christopher Donahue) is the 40-year-old American chauffeur adrift after losing his wife the year before and marking her departure in a most unseemly, uncaring way. He is almost constantly courting Bridget, who alternately seems disdainful or appreciative of the attention, given her loneliness.
Bridget has paid dearly for an affair that went awry back home and produced a living reminder of her shame, but she consoles herself with not being sent off to a laundry — as many women were — and dreams of being reunited again some day.
She drinks a little — some days, more than a little — to cope with the pain of what she left back home and the unending drudgery of her days, to the point where she sometimes passes out, and is rescued and spared further shame by Jack.
Noone will be unsparing in laying out the burden the women face, and even has his characters working in their kitchen through the intermission between Acts 1 and 2 as to burnish the point that their work was never done.
Cathleen is still full of optimism, as she flirts with James Tyrone and considers becoming an actress, but even she is beaten down after a wrenching scene when she forces Bridget to read aloud a wrenching “Dear John” letter from her fiancée calling off her engagement.
The Tyrone family will be heard offstage in the voices of Greg Balla and Karen MacDonald as Noone skillfully intertwines the two pieces.
“The Second Girl” is the third Huntington production for Noone, 44, a Huntington playwriting fellow, following two very successful pieces — “Brendan,” with Nancy E. Carroll, and “The Atheist,” starring Campbell Scott, who directs here with both a firmness and fondness for the characters Noone has created.
There are very strong production values, including Santo Loquasto’s costumes and the richly-detailed kitchen located off the dining room of the Tyrone home, complete with working appliances of the time.
James F. Ingalls’ lighting moves with the timeline, and Ben Emerson’s sound design casually and effectively suggests the nearby seashore.
Noone has decided to not abandon his characters to the despair that often grips them. The ending the next morning at the end of the 24 hours finds the sadness tinged with hope. The sun has come up, and maybe there is a future to be had.
The Huntington Theatre Company production of “The Second Girl.” Written by Ronan Noone. Directed by Campbell Scott. Set and costumes, Santo Loquasto. Sound, Ben Emerson., Lights, James F. Ingalls. In the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Feb. 21. http://www.huntingtontheatre.org