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Interview with Ciaran O'Reilly
Molly Sweeney

Ciaran O'Reilly
Molly Sweeney, the title character in Brian Friel's drama, is a well-adjusted woman who has been blind since infancy. At 41, however, she learns that through corneal surgeries she may be able to regain some or all of her sight. With the prodding of her husband and her once renowned, now broken surgeon, Molly goes forward with the surgeries. In a series of monologues, the play examines the effect of the operations on not only Molly but her husband and the doctor as well. Despite its simple structure it is a dense and rich work, packed with evocative ideas and full of emotion. Molly Sweeney debuted at Ireland's Gate Theater in 1994 and came to New York in 1996 in a Roundabout Theatre production which was directed by Friel and starred Catherine Byrne, Jason Robards and Alfred Molina.

The play is now receiving its first major New York revival by the acclaimed Chelsea company The Irish Repertory Theatre. Geraldine Hughes (Belfast Blues) plays the title role; stage veteran Jonathan Hogan is the surgeon, Mr. Rice; and Irish Rep's co-founder Ciaran O'Reilly, rounds out the cast as Molly's husband Frank Sweeney. One Wednesday, between matinee and evening performances, I interviewed O'Reilly by phone about his work with Irish Rep and about Molly Sweeney.

Beth Herstein:  You were born in Ireland, not far from Dublin. When did you come to the United States and what brought you here?

Ciaran O'Reilly:  I originally came to New York in the late '70s, but I permanently moved here in the early '80s. I was quite young, so I wasn't quite sure where I was going. I thought I wanted to go into theater and become a big Hollywood star. But, I never left New York.

BH:  You were in several productions at the Irish Arts Center, which produces theatrical works but has many other components—with literary events, senior activities, and more. What led you to set up your own theater company?

CR:  When I was involved in the Irish Arts Center, I knew that there was a vacuum at the time for Irish theater, and that people would really love to see it. Charlotte [Moore] directed the very first play, a Sean O'Casey play [The Plough and the Stars]. We sold out that run, pretty much, and just kept on going from there.

BH:  How did you meet Charlotte Moore [Irish Rep's co-founder and the director of Molly Sweeney]?

CR:  Oh, we were very good friends. We had done some shows together, including one called Summer by Hugh Leonard, that Brian Murray directed. Swoosie Kurtz was in it, and Pauline Flanagan, and other people who became lifelong friends. So, I already knew Charlotte from then. She was acting less and I knew she was interested in directing. Between the two of us we just kept on going.

BH:  Some of my favorite theater companies have a way of pulling in great talent, working with them, and kind of enfolding them into their family. Irish Rep seems to be that way as well, with actors like Brian Murray, Melissa Errico, and Malcolm Gets, among others, returning periodically to the stage.

CR:  We certainly have a sort of floating company, and people like to come back. You mentioned Melissa Errico. She said she feels that every once in a while, just at the point when she needs to be restored, she gets a call from Irish Rep. She feels a little bit replenished by it. Malcolm Gets talked about a similar thing. I love it that they see it as a home for them. I think it's a home for a lot of people.

BH:  How has Irish Rep changed and grown over the years?

CR:  Well, we're in our 23rd season. It certainly has grown from our first season, when our budget was under $100,000. Now it's $2.5 million. At first the staff was myself and Charlotte, there's now 10-12 full time staff members along with part time and interns. It certainly has grown in that way. The membership is at around 2,500, which is something similar to a subscription though slightly different from that. We own our own theater as well, which is big.

BH:  That is a huge thing.

CR:  We haven't entirely paid off the purse. We still owe over $1 million. We are in the middle of a capital campaign for it. That is very much an ongoing thing. We have to balance the artistic side with the business side. That is always the clash.

BH:  You've both acted and directed. How does the one affect your work in the other?

CR:  I approach directing very much from a performer's point of view. Actors find their ways into the roles and I know that process so well. I am tortured by lines, I find them so hard to get in there. But they can only get in there a certain way, that is how it works for me. I have to know what I'm saying. Once they make sense to me I can never forget them. If they don't make sense to me, [I'll have trouble holding on to them.] ... I have a rapport with the actors and a huge respect for the designers too. They just know so much—sometimes they know so much more than you do. I talk to designers all the time about things that might not deal directly with what they do. Like I'll talk to a sound designer about an actor. It's amazing—they have an objectivity that enables them to see something in a way that actors and directors can't.

Jonathan Hogan, Geraldine Hughes, Ciaran O'Reilly
BH:  That's a good segue into Molly Sweeney, which says a lot about vision, and the way we see and communicate with each other. As I watched the show I kept thinking of one of the neurologist Oliver Sacks' essays ["To See or Not to See" from An Anthropologist on Mars], about a man who could barely perceive anything visually and then had operations on his cornea to restore his vision. Then I learned that Brian Friel was inspired by the essay.

CR:  He was indeed. Initially we didn't have that in the program, but we have since rectified that omission.

BH:  I wonder if you could talk a little about Molly Sweeney, for the Talkin' Broadway readers.

CR:  Sure. It's about a woman who's been nearly blind since she was 10 months old. She's now just past 40, and she meets and marries a very enthusiastic man [played by O'Reilly] who has adopted a lot of causes in his life—saving the rainforest, not to make money, but causes for the good of the world. His wife becomes his cause ... He discovers that there's an eye surgeon in their small town, someone who was once famous and now forgotten, who might be able to perform a surgery to help her see ... The show explores what the operation does, and also examines what it means to see. It's not so simple as performing a surgery and having the cataracts removed, then opening your eyes and you can see. It's hard to see. When you have no idea of what things are [visually], you have no idea what you're looking at. It becomes an impediment to your life. It does not set you free.

BH:  At a certain point Oliver Sacks decided not to call people disabled but differently-abled because when they lack vision or hearing, for example, their other abilities get enhanced.

CR:  To that point, Molly Sweeney was a wonderful swimmer. In her own words, she pitied people who weren't blind because only blind people could absolutely enjoy the water like she did and the absolute sensation [of freedom] that it offered to people like herself. All this was taken away from her when she had the operation ... It's interesting. Not disabled. It's absolutely true. It's the lack of acceptance by people who have all five senses, who think that's the only way [to perceive]. It's just not true. She functioned absolutely well, as did Oliver Sacks' patient, Virgil. He too worked at a YMCA, he gave massages I think. He was pushed by his wife to have the operation and he ended up losing his job and his home because the house was provided by the company ...

BH:  You just spoke of Frank Sweeney, your character, and his incredible enthusiasm. You do a fine job of bringing out his good heart while still showing that he's capable of causing damage.

CR:  He means so well. All do, even the doctor, though he is the one who should have known better than to jump in without thinking about the potential consequences. There was not a dire emergency in her life to make her do this. She was a very happy, competent, human being.

BH:  Can you talk about the dramatic structure of the play? It's presented of course as a series of alternating monologues that move the narrative forward, as opposed to a series of dramatic scenes.

CR:  I suppose this literally became a form of Irish playwriting—until people began saying, "Oh, no, not any more monologues." Conor McPherson picked up on it, as well as others. Three people telling the same story from their point of view—it hearkens back to the oldest form of storytelling. This could be a story told around a hearth fire.

BH:  Also, by breaking up the story up and telling it from more than one perspective, it reinforces the idea that everyone sees the same story differently.

CR:  Yes, and this form also leaves huge amounts to the imagination. Just as you can read a wonderful book and have a picture of it ... in this play, the scenic elements are minor. [The images] come from the audience—the picture of the office, the hospital, and the party. The bungalow where the doctor lives. You see it all, in a way that no scenic designer could ever create.

BH:  You and the other actors are on stage the entire time, even when you're not the ones talking. Sometimes you react to what the other characters are saying and other times you don't. That must be very challenging.

CR:  It's an exhausting play to do. The focus and attention it requires at all times, whether you're on or off, is a lot. Of course, the challenge being as well—when you're the one talking, if you get lost along the way there's not much help that you're given by the other characters ...

BH:  All three actors are so integral to the story, and you all give such strong performances. What has it been like working with Geraldine Hughes and Jonathan Hogan?

CR:  Geraldine Hughes—I don't know if you saw her one-woman show, Belfast Blues. It was fantastic. That was the one time I did see her on stage. She lived in Los Angeles for a while, and came back to New York only recently. She did Translations on Broadway, with the Manhattan Theatre Club. She's just a fantastic woman. She comes from a really rough section of Belfast, in the slums of Belfast. She grew up at a time of great violence in Belfast. An American director [the late George Schaefer] held auditions for a television movie of the week [the 1984 TV film "Children in the Crossfire"]. Geraldine [who was 14 at the time] made her way to the auditions and got herself cast, and suddenly she was in Hollywood. Then of course the movie was done and she was sent back. But some of the people from the movie didn't forget her, and they sponsored her to come back out. She went to UCLA to study acting. She's been in movies like Rocky Balboa and Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino. She's done well.

And, Jonathan Hogan—I used to watch him in all the Lanford Wilson plays over the years. He's such a naturalistic actor. It's fantastic to be on the stage with those two. They're the real deal.

BH:  You must have a real shorthand working with Charlotte Moore as your director.

CR:  Oh, yeah. [laughs.] Absolutely. We get on fantastic. Terrific director. She's an actress-director as well.

BH:  I want to go back and ask you about your recent directing job at Irish Rep, O'Neill's The Emperor Jones in 2009. That was an incredible production, and John Douglas Thomas was a force of nature on the stage.

CR:  He's fantastic. He never had a bad show, the whole time. At first, he didn't want to do it. There was so much bad press about The Emperor Jones, people said that no one could ever do it again with a straight face [because of its allegedly racist depictions]. It was a risk for John, for he certainly had received a lot of good press with Othello and other shows. But, it was a really good time, all around, everyone was wonderful. In our world, with our small budgets, we all have to do so many different things. You can't be here all the time. But this one was so much a designer's show as well, the set and the sound effects were so important. We needed them there to be there to pull it all together, not just come in the last week or so. They all came. They all got into it, and we were a real team, we were all on the same page. Directing anything, somebody said years ago that the goal is that everyone's doing the same play. [That's what happened with this show.]

BH:  I know you have a busy day today. Anything else you want to say?

CR:  I think we've covered it all. Just, I hope everyone comes out to see the show.

Molly Sweeney by Brian Friel, at Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY. For performance and ticket information, visit

Photos: Carol Rosegg

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