Huntington's "Second Girl": A Long Dazed Journey

Kathleen McElfresh, MacKenzie Meehan & Christopher Donahue in "The Second Girl"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Huntington Theatre Company’s current production is the world premiere of “The Second Girl” by Ronan Noone (whose “Brendan” and “The Atheist” had previously been staged by the company). It was the playwright’s expressed wish to write about the Irish in America, specifically Irish-born Americans, and he had the clever idea of portraying a day in the life of the three servants in the employ of the Tyrone Family made famous in Eugene O’Neill’s beloved “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. In these days of the rabid popularity of “Downton Abbey”, as well as the ubiquitous “reality” programs now in vogue, the temptation to present the downstairs flip side of that venerable classic must have been too great to resist. After all, in the original O’Neill work we were given only a brief exposure to the “second girl”, Cathleen (here performed by MacKenzie Meehan), and the rather dismissive description of her as “amiable, ignorant and clumsy, and possessed of a dense well-meaning stupidity”. Surely there was more to her than that, and it’s this premise that Noone has decided to explore.

The play begins in virtual darkness (just before sunrise) on that famous August day in 1912 in the Tyrone’s summer home, Monte Christo (named after the role the elder Tyrone played some six thousand times in his acting career). It starts, fittingly enough for this story, with a prayer. The cook Bridget (Kathleen McElfresh) has risen early, as has been her daily custom, to prepare breakfast for the family, the first of endless minor chores she faces each day. She’s shortly joined by Smythe (Christopher Donahue), a garage mechanic who has been moonlighting as a part-time chauffeur for the family. Finally, Cathleen, niece to Bridget, arrives to assist with the preparations. As they go through their mundane daily tasks, it becomes clear that their lives are pretty much defined by the work they do, and it’s tedious and repetitive work at that, interminably boring. They bicker, tease and flirt, as we are gradually given clues as to their past, and glimmers of what their futures might be. We learn that Cathleen (a survivor of the Titanic four months earlier) has spirit and gumption, that Bridget is rigid and frigid, and that Smythe, in his quiet and awkward manner, has dreams of a better life. Throughout the course of a day, loneliness becomes almost a fourth character, and all three change a bit, while remaining pretty much the same. Although there are revelations to be learned, they’re not the sort of critical developments of which great theater must consist.

All three actors are completely credible, natural, and comfortable in their roles, with occasional opportunities to rise above the superficial tedium of their lives. The direction by Campbell Scott is consistent with the author’s portrayal of these lives of quiet desperation. On both the creative and technical levels, the production is up to the company’s usually impeccable standards, especially with respect to the Scenic Design by the deservedly renowned Santo Loquasto (who has earned three Tony Awards, and fifteen nominations over his lengthy career). The kitchen, which seems almost an afterthought appendage to the house, is a marvel of intricate detail and practicality. Loquasto also provided the Costume Design, which is simple and appropriate. The Sound Design by Ben Emerson is unobtrusive, though curiously, although there are at least two references to the fog (which Mary Tyrone loved), there is no sound of the horns (which she despised). The Lighting Design by James F. Ingalls is a crucial element in its passage from one morning to the next with varying degrees of the light of a long summer’s day, and is very strikingly present at the first moment of the intermission.

At the end of the day, this is a well-constructed and painstakingly accomplished treatment of the often overlooked meaning of the menial in the everyday lives of people in service. It might profit from a bit of trimming and the omission of an intermission, as there is insufficient dramatic arc to support the need for a break in the action. It should also be noted that the first action after the initial prayer is a hasty gulp of spirits, signaling we’re once again in the land of the Irish stereotype. This becomes, for at least one character, a long dazed journey.

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