The Maid Behind the Mayhem
By Robert M. Dowling, Contributor
June / July 2016
An Interview with Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s Colby Minifie.
On the evening of November 7, 1956, after the final curtain dropped on the New York premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical masterwork Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the air in the Helen Hayes Theatre was strangely still. After more than a minute of hushed silence, the audience slowly rose to its feet, gradually began clapping, then roared its applause. Countless curtain calls followed before theatergoers finally rushed the stage to hail the visibly exhausted performers who had, nearly everyone there knew, just made American theater history. The production ran for 390 performances over 65 weeks and posthumously won O’Neill a Drama Critics Circle Award, an Outer Circle Award, a Tony Award, and his fourth Pulitzer Prize.
When the final curtain fell on this season’s new telling of Long Day’s Journey at the American Airlines Theatre, the great burst of applause and genuine outpouring of admiration conjured up, for many O’Neill devotees like myself, the spirit of that legendary evening in 1956.
The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival, under the superb direction of Jonathan Kent, features Jessica Lange as Mary Tyrone (the morphine-addicted matriarch, whom Lange also played to great acclaim in 2000 in London), Gabriel Byrne as James (the miserly first-generation pater familias), Michael Shannon as Jamie (their ne’er-do-well elder son), and John Gallagher, Jr. as Edmund (the tubercular would-be playwright himself). Lange, Shannon, and the revival as a whole have already garnered three Outer Critics Circle awards, and the show’s been nominated for numerous others still to be announced, including seven Tony Awards.
Yet there’s a singular role in Long Day’s Journey that typically draws scant critical attention. Cathleen, the Tyrones’ Irish servant, or “second girl,” makes few appearances in the play. Most of her lines take place in the opening scene of act three, where she offers her mistress a respite from loneliness while the three Tyrone men are out drinking and, in Jamie’s case, visiting a brothel. Mary, having taken untold injections of morphine, is progressively losing herself in the fog of the past while an actual fog clouds the view outside the windows (the symbolism of the fog is intensified by designer Tom Pye’s exquisitely rustic set). Cathleen, having been offered whiskey, becomes more than a little drunk herself and boldly chats away with Mary, who remotely voices her past hopes and profound disillusionment with the present.
This brief but vital scene is played opposite Jessica Lange with winsome liveliness by the gifted young actor Colby Minifie. Irish America was delighted, then, when Minifie agreed to reveal her process to our readers and what it was like to perform in this celebrated production.
You started acting at only 11 years old and were soon hired, in 2005, as an understudy for Martin McDonagh’s multi-award winning Broadway triumph The Pillowman. Now you’ve returned to the Great White Way with this acclaimed revival of Long Day’s Journey. But you’ve also appeared in an array of Off-Broadway plays, feature-length films, shorts, and TV shows. Where are you hoping to go from here?
Well, I have been ridiculously fortunate thus far to work with some of the best writers on some of their most poignant plays. Between O’Neill, McDonagh, and Simon Stephens, I have been spoiled beyond belief to be able to cut my teeth on writing that seems to have limitless depth. I can only hope to be as fortunate in the years to come in that department. I am also very interested in the complex and nuanced stories that are being explored in the television industry these days, especially through these lovely streaming services. We are in another “golden age of television” where shows that exist somewhat out of the normal tenor of what networks are producing have a home where they can be explored in a new format. What excited me about [working on the noir superhero TV series] Jessica Jones was that the writers didn’t have to bend the story around advertising breaks or include expository dialogue to recap information from the week before. As a result, the show turned into a riveting thirteen-hour movie.
Being a part of Long Day’s Journey Into Night has given me the gift of witnessing a small fraction of how hard these legendary actors work, and they have taught me, at the very least, the importance of thorough and ruthless preparation. The more you mine this play, the more you get out of it. I can only strive to be as thorough with my own preparation from here on out. We owe it to the writer.
Following on the trail of so many of O’Neill’s interpreters over the decades, you made the trip out to tour Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, Connecticut, where O’Neill grew up and set the action of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. What did you hope to gain from your pilgrimage to his family home, and what did you discover once you got there?
I went to Monte Cristo Cottage a couple years prior to working on this play and, I am embarrassed to say, I had not read or seen Long Day’s Journey at that point. But it was exceedingly helpful to revisit the cottage from Cathleen’s perspective once I heard I would be part of this production.
Reentering the house, having just finished your book, Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts, I immediately felt the haunting presence of the O’Neill family. I was struck by the claustrophobic atmosphere of the house, especially in the family room and on the second floor. The bedrooms are so close it’s easy to understand why Jamie and Eugene were hyper aware of Ella O’Neill’s movements throughout the house at night, or that James’s snoring would keep them awake! Jamie’s room just breaks my heart; its odd shape and precarious placement over the eaves of the porch further solidify his place in the family as the boy who has “been lost to us for some time.”
The intimate layout of the house explains so much of the play to me. They desperately love each other while harboring massive deep-seated resentments, and they are so physically close all the time, they can’t help but be brutally honest with one another. While revisiting Monte Cristo Cottage, it became clear to me how harrowing it must be for Cathleen to be invading their small space every day; making their beds, cleaning their sheets, and listening to them hash out their deep family wounds.
To prepare for the role of Cathleen, you encountered, unavoidably, O’Neill’s rather unkind description of your character as “ignorant” and “dense” with a “well-meaning stupidity.” Given O’Neill’s reverence for all things Irish, I understand you were surprised by this, perhaps inclined to disregard to an extent O’Neill’s stage directions and deepen the role intellectually and emotionally. If so, do you feel you arrived at an interpretation that satisfied you while still maintaining the integrity of the script?
I knew, from the moment I read Long Day’s Journey, that if I played Cathleen as “stupid,” I would not be servicing the play. Cathleen is in the play, yes, as a light color to the relentless intensity of the “four haunted Tyrones,” but she is also there to give context to the family. If she is “stupid,” the Tyrones are placed on an intellectual pedestal of sorts, which dehumanizes them a bit. Rather, if Cathleen’s stupidity lies in her ignorance of their problems, it isolates the Tyrones and makes them appear more secretive.
During rehearsal, Gabriel Byrne told an anecdote about playing a king: “You don’t play a king,” he said. “Everyone else does.” I think the same goes for Cathleen’s stupidity. The family thinks she’s stupid because she doesn’t act like a maid the way they expect her to; she speaks out of turn, shouts from the porch to the front hedge, and constantly forgets her place. But Cathleen is a toughie. She survived the harrowing trip to America and found herself a job. I imagine Cathleen is just passing through this house on her way to a happy life and a successful job.
Jessica Lange, playing O’Neill’s mother Mary “Ella” O’Neill, was a far more convincing morphine addict than I’ve ever seen staged, or envisioned from reading O’Neill’s script countless times; but she also displayed a captivating physicality to the character of Mary Tyrone. What has it been like playing this critical scene with an actor at the height of her career? How do you balance Mary’s (Lange’s) speeches with your sense of Cathleen’s (your) individuality? Did Jonathan Kent offer any guidance you might share?
I am in awe of Jessica. I’ve never seen her perform our scene the same way twice. She tells the story clearly and hits all the notes that we discussed in rehearsal, but she breathes new life into it every night. She is ruthless with her choices. I heard Jessica say the other day that she feels like she’s being pushed through the play by an unseen hand. I feel that same vitality when we do our scene at the top of act three. The wonderful Jonathan Kent reminded me in rehearsal that Cathleen is both blithe and terribly excited by boys. When Mary is telling her story about how she and James Tyrone met in his dressing room, all I have to do is listen, and I am enthralled. She makes my job so easy. I am happy to be there, giving her whatever energy she needs to get through this play, one minute at a time. And the same goes for Gabriel, Michael, and John. The play is a living organism that grows and changes with each performance because these actors refuse to stop digging.
Your Irish brogue was splendidly done. Can you talk about how you developed it? Did O’Neill’s script guide you through Cathleen’s dialect or have some of your past acting roles equipped you for it? Do you think your Irish background might have, in other ways, improved upon your performance in this most Irish of Irish-American plays?
Thank you! O’Neill writes Cathleen in an Irish syntax so it’s easy to wrap your mouth around his words when you add the accent. Being a redhead, I have had to learn different Irish accents, and I have had a lot of help from accent coaches, such as Stephen Gabis and Charlotte Fleck, throughout the years. I did an audio book last year entirely in a Galway accent, and I think that’s why it rests so easily in my body now.
But I was very nervous to do my accent for Gabriel Byrne on the first day of rehearsal. (I took a trip to Ireland over New Year’s, and who was on the cover of the Aer Lingus in-flight magazine talking about his upcoming revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night? You guessed it: Gabriel Byrne.) I confessed my nerves to him and that night Gabriel went home and recorded all of my lines in three different Irish accents. Could you ask for a more supportive cast member?
My trip to Ireland certainly helped my research. (I do not have a lot of Irish blood myself. My mother’s great grandfather was Scotch-Irish, but I’m not sure where he was from, exactly. I was born and raised in New York City. My sister and I mark the fourth generation of New Yorkers in my family!) I listened to the various accents I encountered in Ireland but the point of the trip was to see land and meet people. New Year’s Eve was spent watching the sunset on the Cliffs of Moher and singing in Gaelic for two hours in a pub in Ballyvaughn after the stroke of midnight. I really got a sense of Irish culture and the familiarity with which the Irish talk to one another, which is Cathleen’s demeanor through and through. I’m beyond proud that my first time playing an Irish girl is in an O’Neill play. ♦