To find yourself preparing for the world premiere of a play you’ve written is a major undertaking. To find yourself preparing simultaneously for the world premiere of two plays you’ve written is pretty much unheard of.
Yet that’s where Ronan Noone is at the moment. His new play, “The Second Girl,” has its world premiere at the Huntington Theatre from Jan. 16 to Feb. 21. Four months later, his “Scenes from an Adultery” will have its world premiere from June 6 to June 21 at New Repertory Theater in Watertown. When the significance of this achievement is brought to Noone’s attention, he says modestly, “I’m very lucky.”
From “The Lepers of Baile Baiste” and “Brendan” to “The Blowin of Baile Gall,” “The Atheist,” “Little Black Dress,” and “Compass Rose,” his award–winning plays have been produced from Boston to New York, Los Angeles, Edinburgh, and London.
He wrote “The Second Girl” in 2013 and introduced it as a staged reading during last winter’s Breaking Ground Festival at the Huntington. Set against a backdrop of the Eugene O’Neill classic “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” the play takes place in the downstairs world of the Tyrone family kitchen in August of 1912.
The three characters, all immigrants, include servant Cathleen O’Leary (played by MacKenzie Meehan), the “second girl,” who actually appears in the O’Neill drama, plus two characters mentioned in the original play but never seen – servant Bridget O’Sullivan (played by Kathleen McElfresh) and chauffeur Jack Smythe (played by Christopher Donahue). All three explore the tragedy and triumph of belonging in their new world.
A graduate of the University of Galway, Ronan Noone emigrated from Ireland (Clifden) in 1994. Today, he and his wife and their two young daughters reside on the South Shore. Keeping a full work schedule, he is also an assistant professor in the Playwriting Program at Boston University, an Artistic Associate at The Vineyard Playhouse on Martha’s Vineyard, and a Next Voices Playwriting Fellow at New Rep.
He recently made time during a very busy day to talk about the Huntington play and more. Here’s a condensed look at our conversation.
Q. What was the creative spark in your writing “The Second Girl” as an exploration of the servants’ world in “Long Day’s Journey?”
A. There’s a line in “Long Day’s Journey into Night” where O’Neill refers to Cathleen as amiable, ignorant, clumsy, and possessed of a dense, well-meaning stupidity. I think I wanted to redeem that. I don’t think somebody gets on a boat and comes over here possessed of a dense, well-meaning stupidity.
Q. Talk about that a bit.
A. I understand where he’s coming from. There’s a certain self-hatred in terms of being Irish, considering all that’s gone on in that play. The fact is that when you leave your home – and I don’t know if this is often talked about, and I think it’s what I’m trying to get at in the play at times – is that you not just overcompensate, but there’s a particular guilt, I think, in the idea that you have left everyone and everything behind and begin to start out fresh. The idea of starting out fresh is wonderful – the sun is shining – but you carry a weight, a story that oftentimes you don’t tell, but you bring with you. Makes you who you are . . . that’s something I wanted to unravel . . . It’s not all just pure optimism. You have to carry something that develops you into a stronger person – for some. And others, as you know – from the Irish who get left behind and end up in corners or streets in a foreign country –should never have had to get on a boat and try to survive.
Q. Campbell Scott starred in “The Atheist” at the Huntington in 2007, but for this play, he’s directing. What has your process been like in working together?
A. There’s been a constant tweaking and changing. Every morning in general . . . Campbell and myself work over Skype. He will go through it line by line, piece by piece, looking to understand, and asking me to look deeper into particular facets of character, always trying to pull out the truth as much possible . . . That’s been fascinating.
Q. You must have developed a nice shorthand with each other by now.
A. His appreciation for the play and love of the play really brings out more and more effort and a deeper sense of imagination from me when it goes back to rewriting.
Q. I understand you agree with the philosophy that you’re not a real playwright until you’ve got 15 years of doing it under your belt. So how’s it going?
A. (With a laugh) Tom Murphy said that quote a long time ago and I understand what he means. Every play carries the idea of what you’ve learned in a previous one. But I think each time you do it, you’re trying to get just a little bit closer to understanding humanity.
Q. Does your schedule allow you to get back to Ireland very often?
A. Everybody in my family is there. I went back in April. It was fantastic. We traveled through Dublin, into Westport, back to Clifden and up through Galway. It was wonderful to see people I hadn’t seen in years. And also to bring back my girls. There’s a warmth there. I felt terribly welcomed back to Ireland.
Q. It must be fascinating to see your homeland through the eyes of your young daughters, since they were both born here.
A. It’s exotic, isn’t it? To them, they see themselves as, they’re “kind of Irish” and I’m “fully Irish.”
Q. The Boston theater community has enthusiastically embraced you as one of their own. How does that kind of success translate in Ireland?
A. I think you have to work harder. Let me put it this way: If I had started out in Ireland, I don’t imagine I would have succeeded. And you know what, even if you look at other Irish playwrights that you’ve known along the way, a lot of them found their home in an English theater. And from there they were endorsed and spring-boarded into a more world stage. So whether Ireland waits for playwrights to be spring-boarded that way, or whether it’s a closed shop, I don’t know because I’m not in their scene as much. But I’ve never had a play done in Ireland. That’s another thing, too. (With a sly laugh) Maybe I have a chip on my shoulder about that.
R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.
“The Second Girl,” Jan. 16-Feb. 21 at The Huntington’s Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., Boston. Tickets: 617-266-0800 or huntingtontheatre.org.