“The Second Girl” is the final play of the season at Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse
There’s probably no theatergoer alive who hasn’t seen at least one production of Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece, “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” an autobiographical portrait of the playwright’s own family, set in pre-World War I days in an East Coast summer cottage — a home and hearth saturated with whisky, morphine, and other substances that make parents and their grown children less than delightful.
In O’Neill’s drama, a single servant is given a cameo role, a young Irish lass named Cathleen. Cathleen is “the second girl,” lesser in rank than others on the staff, but matriarch Mary Tyrone detains her for a happy hour before the family’s happy hour, eager to share details of the Tyrone tragedy from her own woozy POV.
And what happens when young Cathleen returns to her rightful place in the kitchen? Boston-based playwright Ronan Noone, whose “The Blowin of Baile Gall” was produced to acclaim here at the playhouse 10 years ago, has taken upon himself the task of imagining the other part of the Tyrone household — the servant class, with its HQ in the big old country kitchen of the seaside cottage.
In the Tyrone scheme of things, there may be other second girls, chambermaids, and handymen, but Mr. Noone centers his story on a trio of characters: Cathleen, played with jaunty charm by Maggie McCaffery, the cook Bridget, a stern and embittered boss lady portrayed by Doria Bramante, and an amiable chauffeur and jack-of-all-trades named, in fact, Jack, performed by Christopher Roberts. Between them they crack and scramble and eat enough eggs and other goodies — mostly in the form of leftovers from Tyrone family plates — wash and dry dishes, burn chickens, and carry platters in and out the swinging kitchen door to leave everyone in the audience exhausted from so much vicarious manual labor. Viewers, on the night they attend, assuredly drop into bed and enjoy a blessed night’s sleep.
So what happens in the kitchen while the Tyrones are drinking and arguing in the parlor? Yes, you guessed it: They’re drinking and arguing as well, because that’s what characters essentially do in a play. (I once read an essay about playwriting in which the instructor posits that a good playwright is like a twisted traffic cop at an intersection: Rather than making certain the drivers maneuver around each other safely, he or she induces them to crash with plenty of noise and breaking glass.)
In “The Second Girl,” the characters annoy each other, but they don’t harbor deep resentments for anyone but themselves. Bridget’s griefs stem from mishaps in her foolish girlhood in Ireland, that one single old-school blot on one’s “honor” — pregnancy — and the repercussions of giving up the baby. Much as we gripe today about a surplus of single moms, we should count our blessings that these same young ladies are no longer ostracized; they can find day care, jobs, be they humble or great, and pick up the pieces of their lives, family intact, with or without a daddy.
The vivacious Cathleen confronts her first heartbreak, this too generated from the Old Country, and the endearing Jack has set his romantic sights on poor, benighted, sour Bridget. It’s a matter of suspense whether he succeeds. Their union would be of obvious benefit to both of them, but that goal in and of itself seldom guides the choices we make in the hurly-burly of our lives.
Mostly, the characters bicker from the cabin fever that comes of people slaving all day within the same four walls. We can only imagine the additional grudges held by the other staff, if there are any. Mr. Tyrone, in “Long Day’s Journey,” is known to be a cheapskate, so it’s possible there is no full-time staff other than the three hapless souls we watch carping and cracking wise before us. Jack at one point holds Bridget’s face and laments from the bottom of his heart, “What kind of a strange race of people are you that you can struggle so much?”
For those of us who love a good Irish drama heaped with wit and that Irish resilience that can force a jig out of a catatonic if the right fiddle music is flourished (which it often is), this is the play to see. It’s also just plain fun to behold another side of the Tyrone household. A similar pleasure might derive from watching the inhabitants of a crofter’s cottage on the estate of Downton Abbey.
MJ Bruder Munafo directs with her usual polish and adroitness. Further excellence is provided by J.P. Elias as stage manager, Lisa Pegnato on scene design and painting, Ernest W. Iannaccone on lighting, Petra Lent McCarron on sound, Mary Wolverton music, Tara Rose Macuch properties, Ellen Dempsey as assistant stage manager, and Paul Munafo as master carpenter.
“The Second Girl” was developed by the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, then originally produced by the Huntington Theater Company in Boston. The current production will run through Oct. 8.
For tickets and more information, visit mvplayhouse.org.