The Second Girl
Playwright Ronan Noone takes us on a long day's journey into the lives of the Tyrone family's household staff, c. 1912.
This time the upstairs-downstairs saga remains in the kitchen of James Tyrone's home in New London, Connecticut, while he and his family stay resolutely offstage in Ronan Noone's new play, The Second Girl, now having its world premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company. Noone, who immigrated to America from Ireland two decades ago, has looked back at the lives of two women who made the same journey and how they fared as their dreams and illusions faded into the fog-shrouded nights they found here.
As mentioned in Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical masterpiece, the Tyrones kept three servants: Bridget, the first maid, Cathleen, "the second girl," and Smythe, the chauffeur, but only Cathleen is seen onstage. In Noone's play, Bridget is pictured as Cathleen's aunt, already 10 years in America after she was shipped off by her family because of a scandal. Cathleen, her feisty, much younger niece, has more recently arrived. Smythe, now 44, is a lonely widower, in love with Bridget. Except for a letter derailing Cathleen's memories of Ireland, and a defiant move by Smythe, the future seems much the same at sunrise when both Noone and O'Neill's plays begin, and the following morning when Noone's play ends.
Loneliness is the engine that drives Smythe and Bridget, while Cathleen is torn between longing for home and a better life in the new land. Alcohol, the stuff that allows one to forget, unites the Tyrones with the servants they seldom view as people with desires, despite their constant presence.
Under the beautifully detailed direction by Campbell Scott, the daily chores that encompass the actions of the servants are played out on Santo Loquasto's amazingly real period setting of a domestic scene. The faucet on the sink runs water, the stove cooks the eggs that steam with heat as they are spooned onto a plate, and the smell of sizzling bacon wafts into the nostrils of the audience, as if the viewer were back in the days of David Belasco, the theater tycoon famous for naturalistic onstage scenes. The maids are busy preparing the food and arranging the dishes before the stage lights come up and their hands are never still. Smythe shares the space when he comes in for meals, caught between the outside world, where he rambles, and the servant class, where he yearns for companionship.
Scott has cast the three-hander well. Kathleen McElfresh as Bridget is a picture of depression, at age 32, unable to find solace, except in the bottle. She has never forgotten her folks at home but she has received only two letters in 10 years, despite the money she sends home. She is lovely when she lets down her hair, and allows Smythe to come near her; however, her most natural posture is as tightly fixed as the bun in her hair. MacKenzie Meehan as Cathleen is a lively presence as she longs for a career as a Shakespearean actress, coached by Mr. Tyrone. She has dreams of returning home to the Abbey Stage as a star yet cannot make the break from the kitchen. Meehan consciously rearranges her demeanor and expression when she leaves the kitchen to enter the space of the Tyrones. Christopher Donahue is a solid presence between the more volatile women, and he is sensitive to his condition in the pensive moments of silence that Scott has wisely allowed his three actors.
Noone certainly had a good idea to explore the offstage characters from O'Neill's play as a conduit into the immigrant experience in America, with its promises and disappointments. In the end, however, the lives of these transient souls struggle to keep our attention for two hours, and tug at our heartstrings only as generic portraits of persons far from home.