Sunday, February 8, 2015
“The Second Girl” is First Rate
But “The Second Girl,” now playing at the Boston Center for the Arts presented by the Huntington Theatre Company, is no ordinary work, and Boston-area Catholics who can take it in before it closes February 21 will be happy they did so.
“The Second Girl” is a three-character “Downton Abbey” shot only in the kitchen. Upstairs—and through the swinging door to the dining room off left—is Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical Tyrone family living their “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Thus Ronan Noone’s superb play is a wink at theatrical insiders. This, he says, is what might have been going on behind the kitchen door while the wealthy upstairs family was battling alcoholism, drug addiction, and each other, as they do in O’Neill’s famous play.
You don’t have to be a theatrical insider to appreciate “The Second Girl.” It wouldn’t hurt to be Catholic or Irish. My wife is both, and I took her to see the play as a delayed birthday gift. She was moved, as was I, a convert, hardly Irish.
“The Second Girl” is broader than Catholic or Irish, however. It is about the difficulty of leaving one’s cultural heritage, including its religious component, for a foreign context. The playwright calls it “An emotional exploration of adapting to a new world.”
About that prayer.
The kitchen day begins in early-morning darkness as Bridget O’Sullivan (Kathleen McElfresh) enters and fires the coal stove. Then she walks to a tiny altar in the corner, lights a single candle to the Blessed Virgin Mary, kneels, and repeats the prayer, “Hail, Holy Queen, mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope . . . ” Like many Catholics offering a daily prayer, Bridget’s is quick-paced but not without feeling. There is nothing ironic about it.
Noone’s treatment of religion is neither devout nor satirical, but something more along the lines of Flannery O’Connor. Catholicism here is deep, powerful, and tortured. To say much more would be to give away the play’s secrets, which are its characters’ secrets, of course.
You will love all three characters. You will love “The Second Girl.”