Maeve’s House: A Journey Through the Years
By Sheila Langan, Deputy Editor
October 25, 2013
Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre has returned to New York with a new one-man show created and performed by Eamon Morrissey, veteran actor of the Irish stage and screen. Maeve’s House, which centers on the life and work of writer Maeve Brennan, is playing at the Irish Arts Center through November 10 (its run was recently extended for five more performances), and is a must-see for anyone who loves New York and wonderful writing. The show comes straight from the Dublin Theatre Festival, where it debuted to enthusiastic reviews.
The Dublin-born Brennan moved to Washington, DC at seventeen, in 1934, when her father, Robert Brennan, was appointed as the Irish Free State’s First Minister to the United States. She headed to New York in the early 1940s and found her voice in the ’50s and ’60s at publications including Harper’s Bazaar and The New Yorker. In the latter’s Talk of the Town section, in her “communications from our friend the long-winded lady,” Brennan, ever the “traveler in residence,” turned her gimlet eye to her adopted city. In her short stories, many of which were set in her her childhood home of 48 Cherryfield Avenue in the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh, she measured the depths and the surface of loneliness and disappointed yearning. It was one such story, Twelfth Wedding Anniversary, published in The New Yorker in September 1966, that stood out to a young Eamon Morrissey as he flipped through the magazine one evening on his way from Brooklyn to Broadway, where he was appearing in the U.S. premiere of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!
In Maeve’s House, Morrissey’s story of Brennan begins with that moment, which had this native New Yorker delighted from the get-go: “The subway journey from Clark Street station in Brooklyn Heights under the East River to Wall Street in the city takes no more than a few minutes,” he says, as the sound of the train quietly rattles in the background and lights go up on a minimalist set equally imaginable as subway or a sitting room. “Yet, in the tunnel under the river the train reaches incredible levels of noise and of speed. It is as if the train and driver can finally give vent to the constant frustration of their stop-start lives, or perhaps, they too are aware of the East River just above them and want as quickly as possible to ‘get out of there.’ For me, it was a nightly routine trip that never became completely mundane, so perhaps it is fitting that, on an evening in September 1996, it was there, in that alien, subterranean world, my entire childhood and background came leaping out at me.”
48 Cherryfield Avenue was also Morrissey’s childhood home – his parents had bought it from the Brennan family before they moved to Washington, and they lived there for many years. Morrissey was aware of Brennan; it was a connection his mother, also named Maeve, took pride in. But that moment on the subway, recognizing so intimately Brennan’s descriptions of the creaking stairs and the door grown out of its frame from the wet, marked the beginning of his fascination with and great esteem for her. After a number of attempts to connect, Brennan met him one afternoon at the Russian Tea Room, where they talked about Cherryfield Avenue, his impressions of New York, and writing. After leaving the Tea Room, Brennan took him to a nearby book store, where she bought him an anthology of Russian short stories and proclaimed in parting, “It’s all in there, you know.”
They never met again – Brennan, who was beginning to struggle with mental illness and alcoholism, began a sad decline that would see her often homeless in the ’70s and ’80s, and in a nursing home in Averne, New York by the time of her death in 1993, without – according to some – any memory of having been a great writer. But her works, and her words, stayed with Morrissey, and in Maeve’s House he has created a fitting, heartfelt tribute.
No stranger to one-man shows about Irish writers and their works, Morrissey, who turned 70 this year, has also written and starred in dramatic homages to Brian O’Nolan a.k.a Flann O’Brien (The Brother), Jonathan Swift (Patrick Gulliver) and James Joyce (Joycemen). But here, in addition to communicating Brennan’s life story and creative spirit, which Morrissey does with great empathy and humility, there’s something eminently personal at play, as he weaves the story of his awareness of Brennan together with flashes of his own maturing as an artist. Brennan’s biography is also interspersed with generous samples from her writing, which Morrissey, an expert storyteller, enacts wonderfully, and will likely inspire audience members to search for more of her writing after the show. At times, Morrissey’s narration blurs into Brennan’s words, making it somewhat of a challenge for those unfamiliar with her works to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. In less careful hands, this permeability could come across as slightly presumptuous, but Morrissey is deft and respectful; full of creative and personal admiration, and lament for the things that did not go as they might have. Maeve’s House is a profoundly moving play that showcases both the extraordinary talent of Maeve Brennan, and of Eamon Morrissey, who has taken it upon himself to remember her as she should be remembered.
Maeve’s House, created and performed by Eamon Morrissey and directed by Gerard Stembridge, is playing at the Irish Arts Center. Originally slated to run through November 3, the show has been extended through November 10. Running time: 70 minutes. For tickets and for further information, click here to visit the Irish Arts Center’s website, or call 212-757-3318.