The Boston theater community lost one of its best late last month when beloved actress-director Nancy E. Carroll passed on Christmas Eve after a long battle with cancer.
Born in Haverhill in 1952, she moved to Ohio at the age of three when her father took a teaching job there. Relatives remained behind, so returning to Massachusetts for summer trips was commonplace.
Early on, she developed an affinity for the sea. “I was hooked,” she said when we spoke for a Boston Irish feature in 2012. “As soon as I was old enough to move here, I said, ‘Forget it, I’m moving to the ocean.’” And she did, ultimately settling in Rockport.
As her obituary noted, Nancy’s work in regional, off-Broadway, and Broadway theater “encompassed more than 140 productions in nearly every imaginable genre, from musicals to Shakespeare to Ibsen, from one-woman shows to experimental plays.”
Receiving top honors from both the Elliot Norton Awards and the Independent Reviewers of New England, Nancy was a welcome presence on any stage. She could play brilliant comedy one minute and break your heart the next.
If Nancy’s name appeared in the cast list, you knew you were in for a wonderful evening’s entertainment. No matter what role she assumed, star or supporting player, she was accessible, open, and honest. She became someone you felt you knew.
She scored raves as the comically bitchy spinster from hell in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Savannah Disputation.” In “Trad” at Tir Na Theatre, she was hilarious as an “ancient priest.”
When she took on the “The Year of Magical Thinking” at Lyric Stage, she was extraordinary. Nancy was alone on stage for 90 minutes, sitting quietly in an armchair, speaking directly to her audience. Based on Joan Didion’s memoir of the same name, the story is one of shock, grief, and mourning.
Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, her partner in life as well as collaborator in writing, dropped dead at the dinner table after returning from a visit to the bedside of their daughter, who lay in a coma in the ICU of a New York hospital. Nancy was so mesmerizing you could have heard a pin drop in the theatre.
And she practically stole the show from star Victor Garber in the Huntington production of Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” in 2007. Such that when the show later transferred to Broadway, Nancy went right along with it to play the crotchety, cigarette-puffing maid.
Carmel O'Reilly, Founding Artistic Director of The Súgán Theater Company said that Nancy’s “hilarious portrayals, superb comic timing and gift for natural stage business often brought the house down. An American actress, she mastered Irish cadences and characters with uncanny perception. It must have been in those Carroll genes!. . . She could send up nuns, deliver eccentric old Irish biddies, play shambling half deaf old priests, and everything in between.”
She continued, “We will always remember Nancy for her extraordinary performances as the unforgettable Mommo in Tom Murphy’s challenging play ‘Bailegangaire’ at The Súgán in 2002. It is an emotionally complicated family story. Nancy’s rendering of Mommo’s storytelling soared like an aria. The play sold out to packed houses, and she won the Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Actress.”
The Boston theater community has been sharing memories of Nancy this past week. And while each has noted her enormous talent, a common thread has emphasized her unparalleled kindness.
When I reached out to Paul Daigneault, Founder and Producing Artistic Director at SpeakEasy Stage, he said, “Collaborating with Nancy Carroll was always a joyous occasion. . . I remember, when we were rehearsing ‘The Savannah Disputation’ at SpeakEasy, how kind she and Paula Plum, two of Boston's veteran actors, were to Carolyn Charpie, a recent BC grad tackling one of her first lead roles. Paula and Nancy not only welcomed Carolyn, they embraced the opportunity to bring the comedy to life and teach. It was a lovely gift for me to watch Nancy give a master class in comedy acting.”
On Facebook, actress Maureen Keiller posted, “Yes, she was a brilliant actor, always honest and simple and breathtakingly human. Her talent was a gift to us all. But the greatest gift she gave to me was her kind heart. I cannot put into words how much I appreciated her generosity and kindness . . . When my sister and niece and I decided to take a trip to Ireland, I told Nan our tentative itinerary. ‘Oh no! You have to let me help you plan this! I will send you to my favorite places.’ And she did. She made our trip a magical journey.”
Nancy had a boundless love for Ireland. Carmel said, “When we first met over 20 years ago, she chatted at length about her Carroll family heritage and her visits to Ireland. Returning there annually was not only the highlight of her year, it was also an opportunity, maybe even a need, to drink again from the well of her deep connections to the place and the people.
“She loved the West, its wild landscapes, her daily jaunts, the delight of smoked salmon on brown bread, the hearty vegetable soup, the songs she heard from an old man in a pub. She always came back to Boston recharged.”
Nancy was particularly proud to have toured with Galway’s renowned Druid Theatre Company, here in Boston, across America, and throughout Ireland.
In her memory, here’s a look at a portion of the conversation she and I shared in 2012.
Q. You had a wonderful opportunity to work with The Druid Theater company. How did that come about?
A. I had spoken to my agent and said I was anxious for an adventure. I felt a need to be somewhere else. I had this wanderlust. So, we were poring through the various things that were auditioning in New York. I came across this on the Internet and I rang my agent and said, “Stop, this is what I want to be seen for. It’s ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ with the Druid Theater Company and its going to play Ireland and the US and I want to be seen for it.’’
Q. And it happened.
A. And lucky me. I got into the audition and I got a call back and got cast. Mid-way through that six-month gig with them, they asked me to come back and do “Big Maggie.” So I went back in the fall and did another five months with them and toured only in Ireland.
Q. “Cripple of Inishmaan” played here in Boston at ArtsEmerson, but the tour took you back and forth to Ireland, didn’t it?
A. I can’t tell you how many times we jumped the pond. We opened in Ireland, and then Boston was our first stop here. Then I think we went right back to play Dublin, and then we came back and did Washington and LA and the Spoleto Festival, which was phenomenal. Then at the very end, we went back to Ireland to do it in Inishmaan, where it had never been performed.
Q. Talk about performing a play on its own turf.
A. The place was packed. It was such an event that Mary Robinson, the president of Ireland at the time, attended. It was full of luminaries. You couldn’t find a room on the island. People were pitching tents in pastures. It was magical.
Q. Did your time in Ireland satisfy the wanderlust?
A. I just loved the slower pace. And the countryside was so stunning. In Galway, you’ve got the best of all worlds. You’ve got the sea, and the mountains behind you. You’ve got this wonderful medieval town.
Q. Ireland has always been special to your family?
A. My great-great-grandfather came over from Ireland, from County Offaly and the Roscommon areas. My father had traveled to Ireland a couple of times in his lifetime. Since he was a teacher, he went by himself – we couldn’t afford to take the whole family. It was such an important part of our family. My father made it such an important part. It was all I heard about when I was a child.
Q. Did you ever have the chance to make a visit together?
A. Unfortunately, my father died very, very young. So, my brothers and I went, on the first anniversary of his death, to celebrate his life. And that is how my insane addiction developed. Because before I ever got the job with the Druid, I had been back to Ireland 16 times on vacation. Totally addicted.
Q. Somewhere, your Dad was probably delighted.
A. I can tell you very, very strongly, on the first night of “Cripple” – we had opened in Roscommon – I remember this moment – I was standing outside under the stars and I thought, “God, my father, if he were just here, he would be so proud of me, knowing that I was working in Ireland, doing an Irish play.” It can be cloudy in Ireland, you know that. And suddenly the clouds parted, and the moon shown down on me, and I said, “Okay, that’s my sign. He heard me.”
Carmel O’Reilly thoughtfully echoed the comments of so many in Boston’s theater community, saying, “It was a great privilege and a joy to work with Nancy.
“Ar Dheis Dé go raibh a hanam. (May she rest in peace.)”