Anna Manahan in The Matchmaker
Anna Manahan in The Matchmaker
When Irish-born actress Anna Manahan was, as she puts it, "on this side of the water" in 1998, she walked off with a Tony Award and found a doctor who saved her life--quite a winning combination. Now, four years (and a turn of a century) later, Manahan's back to star in John B. Keane's The Matchmaker at the Irish Rep, and she's as welcome as the flowers in May.

Manahan's last Broadway appearance prior to her Tony-winning turn as the hateful witch of a mother in The Beauty Queen of Leenane was 30 years earlier, when she received a Tony nomination as Art Carney's wife in Brian Friel's Lovers. In The Matchmaker, Manahan plays seven characters. "So does Des Keogh [her co-star], and that's great fun. You switch and change all night." Set in Ireland's rural west in the 1950s, the play concerns various lovelorn individuals who are brought together by a tricky chap named Dicky Mick Dicky O'Connor. Manahan says, "I took over [in the play] a year ago January--for what I thought would be six weeks in Dublin. We got raves at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival [in Scotland] and they wanted it in the West End. They still want it, but we thought it would be better to come and do it in America first. There's a lot of pathos in it but there's also a lot of laughter. It's gotten great response across the water, but the audiences have been even better here."

A native of Waterford City in "the very, very south of Ireland," Manahan is thrilled that she'll be receiving the Freedom of the City Award in her birthplace on April 12. "It's a great honor," she beams, "though it probably doesn't mean a lot in America. I don't know that there's anything equal. It was instituted in the 13th century and I'm the first Waterford woman--and only the second woman in seven or eight centuries--to be given the honor. The other was our former president, Mary Robinson. It's going to be a very big occasion; people are coming from everywhere! I'm accepting it on behalf of my family, which has been involved in theater and the culture of the city since before the First World War, and on behalf of the people of Waterford who wanted me to have it. In years to come, I'll probably be a name in some theater book, but I'll be on the scrolls of the Council Chambers in Waterford until the end of time. It's an amazing thing and I feel very humble about it."

Manahan finds herself Off-Broadway again, where Beauty Queen began its New York success (at the Atlantic Theatre Company). Martin McDonagh's four-character play kept its company intact for a transatlantic transfer. Their subsequent journey uptown to Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre earned them salary boosts, solo dressing rooms (at the Atlantic, they shared one large space, divided into sections by thick curtains), and Tony nominations for all four. Manahan won as Best Featured Actress, Marie Mullen as Best Actress, and Tom Murphy beat out co-star Brian F. O'Byrne as Best Featured Actor.

Prior to Manahan's casting in the show, McDonagh had seen her on television. "He didn't know anyone in the theater," recalls the actress. "Garry Hynes [the play's Tony-winning director] asked him if he had any specific actors in mind [for Beauty Queen]. He said, 'There's a woman--I don't know her name--who's on the Irish RM series. I think I'd like her for Mag.' Garry said, 'That's funny, now; that's the one I was thinking of.'" When she read the script, Manahan immediately connected with her character: "Dark and selfish as she was, I did understand her. There are scripts that you get where have to work your way into a role and then there are others where you just see them. I could see that one. Maybe it's the dark side of my own nature; I don't know. I not only understood her selfishness but also the loneliness and the vulnerability underneath all of that."

Des Keogh and Anna Manahanin The Matchmaker(Photo: Tom Lawlor)
Des Keogh and Anna Manahan
in The Matchmaker
(Photo: Tom Lawlor)
While still performing the show downtown, Manahan discovered that her health was deteriorating. She was sent to a doctor who discovered that a viral infection had damaged the muscles in her heart. "In actual fact, I was dying," she says bluntly. "Dr. Harvey Wolinsky saved my life. I was allowed to perform the next night because he said that I'd had the condition for some time and that it was better for me to carry on, which it was. I would have been sitting in an apartment, terrified! Mind you, it was a slow road back. Just about the time of the Tonys, I was able to stop being depressed and enjoy New York. I come back twice a year to be checked out. That was four years ago. I'm very, very lucky."

Manahan was asked to be part of the stellar cast of Noël Coward's Waiting in the Wings and would have welcomed the opportunity to do back-to-back Broadway plays. However, she had promised to tour in Beauty Queen in Dublin and England "and I kept my word; I always keep my word!" She toured with Kate Burton, who succeeded Marie Mullen in the title role during the Broadway run. "Kate is a lovely, lovely person," says Manahan. "It was wonderful to see her have such a success in Hedda Gabler, and next she's doing The Elephant Man." Did Manahan ever work with Richard Burton? "No," she replies, "but I met him years ago, during my first appearance at the Royal Court. He was a great classical actor. I think we all regret that films took him. Everybody expected him to take over Laurence Olivier's mantle."

Following the Beauty Queen tour, Manahan made a few cameo appearances in films, did a play (A Miracle in Ballymore) in Ireland, and was "very pleased to do Samuel Beckett's All That Fall for radio. It was a wonderful experience, because I was with the cream of Irish Theater. I love radio work. You can play any part; it doesn't matter if you're visually right."

Manahan's actor-husband, Colm O'Kelly, died in Alexandria, Egypt, during a 1956 Gate Theatre tour. The Gate's co-founder, renowned actor Micheal MacLiammoir (1889-1978), detailed the incident in his 1961 diary-form book Each Actor on His Ass and praised Manahan for her dedication in giving a performance the night of her husband's demise. "I have no words," wrote MacLiammoir, "to express my admiration and affection: one can only bow one's head before this sort of courage and this sort of grief."

The actress's breakthrough role was Serafina in Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo. Mag Folan in Beauty Queen also ranks high among her favorites. Her numerous other stage credits include The Plough and the Stars, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, The Killing of Sister George, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Gingerbread Lady, and A Skull in Connemara. Manahan has done extensive television and film work, as well.

John B. Keane, who wrote The Matchmaker, is the actress's "dear, dear friend. I've been in more of his plays than any other professional actor. He rose to fame in 1959 with his play Sive and he wrote Big Maggie for me. His words are magic!" And dispensing a fair share of magic herself as she portrays various Keane women at the Irish Rep is the gifted Anna Manahan.