Dateline: New York, New York –
Another sleep in sort of day followed by breakfast at Big Daddy’s Diner around the corner on Park Avenue. After filling up on omelettes and berry pancakes, Vickie Rozell and I trekked uptown for our first show, Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman which is in its final previews (official opening scheduled for tomorrow…) The play is part of the subgenre of modern Irish plays looking at ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s when the IRA was at its height in a guerrilla war with the English. This one looks at a large Irish family which has been impacted by ‘the vanishing’ of one of its members some ten years prior. As the play opens, his body has been found, buried in a peat bog, and this news disrupts the carefully constructed dynamics of the Carney family. Patriarch Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) has seven children ranging from infant to late teens. Also living in the ancestral farmhouse are his wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), his sister in law Kate (Laura Donnelly), wife of the missing man, her teenage son, three elderly aunts and uncles (Fionnula Flanagan, Mark Lambert, Dearbhla Molloy), and a dimwitted English hired man (Justin Edwards). Throw in three teenage nephews who show up in the second act to help with the harvest, you have quite the house full and what must have been some really grueling blocking rehearsals when everyone is on stage and interacting together. The revelation of the death uncovers secret longings, family dysfunction, a weak catholic priest, a sinister IRA boss, a symbolic live goose and quite a lot happens prior to a violent denouement of the long night’s journey into day.
The three acts run nearly three and a half hours but it never drags as the characters are interesting, expertly performed and the audience knows that the tensions unleashed are going to lead to very bad things, but what ultimately ends up happening is not necessarily what you might expect. It’s a good play, approaching a very good play, with a top notch cast, many of whom are veterans of the original London production which was a huge success commercially and artistically. I don’t see it having a huge life outside first class productions. The technical requirements are easy but the cast is huge and there are eleven characters under the age of 18. Even if the older teens are played by young looking adults, that’s still a heck of a lot of child wrangling and they are not easy child parts and are integral to the action as one of the major themes is how violence descends from generation to generation.
Discussing the play in some detail, we headed uptown, discovering a large street fair on 6th Avenue and took a walk through Central Park, coming back past Lincoln Center and down to restaurant row for dinner. Then it was off to our evening show, The Play That Goes Wrong. I had seen this on a previous trip to NYC a year or so ago but Vickie had not and, as a theater person, I felt she needed to have seen it, at least before she has to sit through 20 community theater productions of it over the next couple of decades. The show is a distaff cousin of Noises Off. A not very good theater company is producing a not very good Agatha Christie type murder mystery and, during the course of the evening, everything that can possibly go wrong, does go wrong. The resulting fiasco on stage is riotous, even if you’ve never been involved in the production of live theater and had most of those things happen to you at some point. It’s great fun, review proof, and likely to be coming to a theater company near you as soon as the original production closes and stock rights are released.
Tonight’s story is about Bennie Middaugh. His wife, Laurie, let me know this morning that he passed on in the night. It was expected. Laurie and I have been communicating about its inevitability for months but no matter how much you think you’ve prepared yourself, when the moment comes, everything becomes overwhelming and difficult and you have a hundred conflicting emotions tearing you apart. I would never have gotten to know them well if it weren’t for Tommy. I knew their names, of course, as does everyone involved in any aspect of music or theater in the greater Birmingham area, but we didn’t cross paths until Tommy made the decision to go back to school for his degree in Choral Music at the University of Montevallo. He met Laurie right away and they hit it off and her name would come up in conversation from time to time. I went down for his first concert his freshman year and was waiting in the lobby for the house to open when a pleasant woman of roughly my age came up to me and asked whose father I was. They weren’t used to 40 something year old students and spouses in the music department. And that was my introduction to Laurie. We got each other pretty quickly and a friendship started to bloom.
A few years later, I realized that if I was going to do as much singing as living with Tommy required, I needed a voice teacher of my voice type and I arranged to take lessons from Bennie in his private studio. For a number of years, I traipsed down to Montevallo every Friday evening I could where Bennie became instrumental in my understanding of my voice. I’m the first to admit I’m not a great singer and never will be, but I’ve learned how to be a good ensemble/choral person and how to sell as song I can’t really sing all that well by giving it a good performance from his tutelage.
Bennie wasn’t young when I met him and, over the last dozen years or so, his health declined. He did me the great honor of asking me to be his doctor and it has been my privilege to work closely with him and Laurie through some difficult times. I will miss him, but will carry the lessons I learned with him in my heart and in my head forever. Goodnight sweet prince….patient….teacher….friend.