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Issue Date:  October 6, 2006

Anna Manahan on her own


Fans clustered at the stage door waiting for actress Anna Manahan to appear.

“We’ve followed you from the first girl you played, and we’ll follow you to the last,” one fan said.

Many people feel that way about Anna Manahan, around the world and most especially in Ireland, where Ms. Manahan has earned a reputation as one of the greatest actors of the second half of the 20th century.

Ms. Manahan has also earned this respect from critics, who regard her as an incomparable interpreter of the works of Sean O’Casey, J.M. Synge, James Joyce, Brian Friel and other Irish playwrights. In the United States, she earned the stage’s highest honor, a Tony Award for her 1998 performance in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”

Now, just shy of her 82nd birthday on Oct. 18, Ms. Manahan is appearing off-Broadway through Oct. 15 in the one-woman play “Sisters,” written for her by Declan Hassett, a former arts editor of the Irish Examiner. It is a demanding endeavor, requiring her to hold the stage alone for nearly two hours, first as Martha, a bitter, 70-year-old woman filled with regret, and then Mary, her sister, who is similarly steeped in sadness over the past. Although the two share the same house, and far more from the past than they realize, the resentment they have held toward each other from childhood separates them emotionally.

“He goes so deeply into the minds and hearts of women,” Ms. Manahan said, referring to the playwright, who based the characters on his family in 1950s Ireland with only occasional allusions to the Biblical siblings. “People are deeply touched by it. Women have written to me, and men too, about the dysfunction in their families. They’ve poured out their hearts about how it affects them. There are a lot of home truths.”

Reactions could be heard throughout the performance the night I was there, murmured sounds of recognition as the sisters shared their feelings of jealousy, first Martha who was her father’s favorite and then Mary who was her mother’s. Each resented the closeness the other had that she didn’t. What makes the play intriguing, though, is the sisters’ envy of each other’s adult lives. Martha thought Mary had the better deal in getting to be a teacher and live in Dublin, and Mary envied Martha being able to stay at home and work in a village shop. The sad part is that they never shared their feelings. Had they done so, they likely could have helped each other to heal.

Wearing a blue-and-white-print dressing gown and slippers, Ms. Manahan sat in her dressing room at 59E59 Theaters before a performance and talked about her encounters with fans, her career and her faith. Bouquets of flowers stood on her makeup table, as did a small statue of Mary, appropriate representations of a woman who said the two places she is most at home are in the theater and church. Barely 5 feet tall, if that, and nursing a dislocated shoulder, Ms. Manahan appeared too frail for the formidable task before her. But her tour de force performance, which critics have praised as “riveting,” “haunting” and “a master class in fine character acting,” prove that age and infirmity cannot overcome what she readily acknowledges is her gift from God.

“I’m told I have the power to touch people and I do,” she said. “The gift is given by God and I’m grateful. I know I have it because of the reactions I get.”

To keep up her strength during the run of a show, Ms. Manahan stays quiet during the day, and at night as she goes on she prays for people she has worked with who have died. In a career that has spanned more than a half century in theater, cinema and on TV, she has many of these spiritual friends to support her.

“I have a mob of my colleagues coming on stage with me,” she said. “I don’t go on alone.”

In addition to God and theater, Ms. Manahan talks of a third love, her husband, Colm O’Kelly. Although she had not been interested in getting married, wrapped up in performing as she was, she fell in love in her 20s with Mr. O’Kelly, a stage manager and occasional actor. Their marriage lasted nearly 10 months, until, touring with a show in Egypt, he contracted polio while swimming and died. Faced with all the hurdles of taking his body home to Ireland, his young bride made the decision to bury him in Egypt among the priests and nuns in a Franciscan cemetery, a resting place she believed would always be held in respect.

“I thought, ‘Well, Colm, love, after we’re all gone there will still be people kneeling at your grave.’ ”

On his tombstone she had inscribed: “Jesus, I place my beloved in your keeping.”

She never had a desire to marry again, preferring to be only Colm O’Kelly’s wife until they meet again in eternity.

“I told him, ‘I’m privileged to be your wife.’ That’s how I felt and that’s how I will always feel.”

Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors.

Related Web site
59E59 Theaters

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

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