Review: Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF): ‘The Second Girl’

Ronan Noone’s The Second Girl received its second chance opening at the Contemporary American Theater Festival last weekend and, like its hardscrabble characters, it’s a well-deserved second chance.

Cathryn Wake, Jessica Wortham, and Ted Koch. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Cathryn Wake, Jessica Wortham, and Ted Koch. Photo by Seth Freeman.

The Second Girl is a touching, hard-knuckle portrayal of working class Irish immigrants, with a twist.

That twist: it all takes place in the kitchen of one James Tyrone (James O’Neill), the famous Irish actor made legendary by his son, Eugene O’Neill, in the play Long Day’s Journey into Night.

The cook, Bridget Conroy, played with spit and pain by Jessica Wortham, has fled her homeland to escape the shame of an out of wedlock birth.

As all know who follow Irish literature that portrays Irish culture during the early 1900, the struggles of Irish Catholics is a combination of British occupation and extreme religious strictures. The struggles of the poor only add to the daily despair.

Bridget works and, as many modern day immigrants to America do, sends money home regularly.

That money has helped pave the way for the arrival of her young cousin, Cathleen Mullen, played with a vivacious optimism by Cathryn Wake. Cathleen, who appears in O’Neill’s Journey into Night, is the Tyrone’s second girl, the summer maid.

Cathryn Wake. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Cathryn Wake. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Then, there is Jack Smythe, played with grit and resolve by Ted Koch.

The widower Jack loves Bridget and wants her to go west with him to start a new life, but Bridget is leery of any man, especially given the betrayal she suffered back in Ireland. Even though she loves and admires Jack, she resists his advances like a bitter old woman.

Seldom are the lives of the working classes portrayed on stage with such empathy: in The Second Girl we experience their daily grind, we understand their resentments, we come to appreciate their lack of hope.

When hope blooms, we pray for that bloom’s survival.

Ted Koch and Jessica Wortham. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Ted Koch and Jessica Wortham. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Ed Herendeen’s direction is tight, and he doesn’t shy away from the agonizingly trite business of daily chores, or from the less than sympathetic characteristics of these characters. In other words, he trusts that Noone’s script has the power to redeem them no matter what they might do.

Kris Stone’s set is an authentic four-sided working kitchen—that’s with bacon and eggs cooking on the stove. For some reason, Stone left exposed two pools of water from the space’s other set, for pen/man/ship. They only distracted from the central force of the naturalism.

Therese Buck’s costumes are restrained and authentic, while Tony Galaska’s lights capture the moods of the day and situations well.

With its focus on class, The Second Girl allows us to witness the lives of those who so often only lurk invisibly around us: those who cook and clean and drive and make the privileged world we see.

The Second Girl and The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) continue through July 31, 2016. Tickets to CATF and for The Second Girl can be purchased through the Theater Festival Box Office, by calling (800) 999-CATF (2283), or by purchasing them online.

LINKS:
Review of ‘Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF): pen/man/ship’ by Robert Michael Oliver.

Review: Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF): 20th Century Blues by Robert Michael Oliver.

Review: Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF): Not Medea by Robert Michael Oliver.

Spine: The 26th Contemporary American Theater Festival: Ed Herendeen’s 26th Snapshot of America’s Theatrical Culture.

Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) Playwrights Interviews: Part 1: Susan Miller and “20th Century Blues” by Sharon J. Anderson.

Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) Playwrights’ Interviews: Part 2: Christina Anderson and “pen/man/ship by Sharon J. Anderson.

Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) Playwrights Interviews: Part 3: Allison Gregory and “Not Medea.”

Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) Playwrights Interviews: Part 4: Ronan Noone and “The Second Girl” by Sharon J. Anderson.

Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) Playwrights Interviews: Part 5: Chisa Hutchinson and “The Wedding Gift by Sharon J. Anderson.

Susan Miller’s website.

Sharon J. Anderson’s website.

Allison Gregory’s website.

Ronan Noone’s website.

Chisa Hutchinson’s website.

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